Handheld Devices

Digital Reading Room: Art appreciation

[As tablets get more powerful, with more memory and sharper-looking screens, their apps are getting a makeover. Increasingly, mobile apps employ multimedia--combining words, pictures, audio, and video--in new and interesting ways. In our Digital Reading Room series, we'll look at some eye-catching multimedia apps and tell you which ones deserve a place on your mobile device.]

We showcase an app with forward-looking ambitions about storytelling and another whose focus--and layout--is rooted firmly in the past. But the real standout in our semi-regular look at content-rich apps for your tablet is one that delivers a complete portrait of one of history's great artists.

Van Gogh: Painted With Words

Van Gogh: Painted With Words includes this reproduction of The Bedroom. The painting fills the entire screen, and by scrolling down you can read a letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, about the painting.

Get a solid introduction to the life and works of the great painter with Van Gogh: Painted With Words. The app is laid out in a chronological sequence, but a tiled table of contents screen enables you to easily navigate to any period. The app's strength is that it presents a very good sampling of his paintings from each period, including series (such as sunflowers), with brief explanatory pop-out captions. It also provides a short biography that's illustrated with photographs, a family tree, self-portraits, and letters Vincent wrote to his brother, Theo. Overall, Van Gogh: Painted With Words is a well-designed app that's a pleasure to browse.

Where to Get It: $1; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Definitely download.

History Calendar for iPad

By default, when you launch History Calendar for iPad you're presented with relatively recent major events, births, and deaths that happened on that day. To explore further back in time, you select a period from the History Browser section of the pop-up window shown here.

The layout and design of History Calendar for iPad harkens back to the Web of the 1990s, which does not bode well for those interested in exploring history in an organized fashion. The look-and-feel may simply be a matter of taste, but the app lacks simple navigational elements, such as a search function, a timeline, or a way to view related sequences of events. The events for each day are presented in a random fashion, with no attempt to sort them, for example, in order of importance.

When you launch History Calendar for iPad, the first thing you see is a splash screen with today's date and an invitation to read about "the top events" on that date. The date's summary page includes single-sentence summaries about events, births, and deaths, as well as illustrative thumbnails. You can tap on each to view a secondary page that includes links to related Wikipedia articles--which means to get full functionality you need to be connected to the Internet, a detail missing in the App Store description.

Wikipedia, The New York Times, and the BBC each offer "This Day In History" sections that are more compelling and user-friendly than this app.

Where to Get It: $2; iOS App Store

The Verdict: Pass.


You choose the character you want to play from within each Versu story. While the narrative and dialogue unspool on the top part of the screen, you can also explore how other characters are feeling at that time, which helps to guide your subsequent behavior.

Versu's developer, Linden Lab, describes the app as "a new interactive reading experience." This may be true, but it's hard to tell, from the few offerings in the Versu library, what makes Versu new--interactive fiction that enables users to play different characters and make choices that alter the course of a narrative has been around for decades, and the first few stories offered within the app are slow-moving and often simply repetitive. Linden, best known for Second Life, knows a lot about new experiences in the digital space, so it's possible that the first stories (the app comes with two freebies, and one as an in-app purchase) aren't indicative of what's to come.

Emily Short, the writer of these stories (and one of the designers of the app), has written about some of the complexities of conversation design using artificial intelligence, and in blog post about the introduction of Versu she writes, "The stories we're releasing today are just a taste of what is possible with this engine." So far, what's available tastes pretty bland.

Where to Get It: Free ($5 for additional stories as in-app purchases); iOS App Store

The Verdict: Wait and see.


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