Who would have thought that the arrival of apps would bring about a resurgence of interest in astronomy? I’ve had so many people ask me about Google Sky Maps or StarWalk, apps that help you …
Who would have thought that the arrival of apps would bring about a resurgence of interest in astronomy? I’ve had so many people ask me about Google Sky Maps or StarWalk, apps that help you identify stars in the night sky, that I thought someone was playing an elaborate prank on me. It really is the most requested topic for me from viewers and the interest is from people of all walks of life.
Of course we all sense the mystery of the night sky above us, but it’s the ease of a smartphone, which combines a camera with a GPS, Gyroscope, and digital compass to really spell it all out for us that has finally made it accessible and in way where you can explore it on your own. The excitement, astronomers should be happy to learn, has always been there.
It made me very happy then to discover The Invisible Universe, an Android app created by Dr. Joshua Peek, a Hubble fellow at Columbia University. It puts a new spin on the same technology, allowing you to point your camera at the world about you and see it through the astonishing eyes of radio telescopes and satellites.
There’s isn’t much to it compared to other astronomy apps, you’re basically exploring a world of beautiful photography, but it makes an important point. The hardest hurdle with astronomy is to conceive of things you can’t see or are not even sure exist. This app reveals the universe through x-ray and gamma-ray vision, through burning gasses and deep infra-red. It reveals space not as an inky nothingness, but a sky filled with clouds of gas, winds of energy, and a precipitation of tiny soot particles, all the result of dying stars and massive explosions that resonate through the universe like eternal storms. The night sky is filled with a secret drama and now you have an easy way to see it.
The Fijit Friends are the strangest kid robots I’ve seen. Their squidgy-rubber bodies don’t feel the way they look and their teletubby-like screen faces animate into such blissful expressions of faux-chumminess that you’ll be forgiven if you turn and run away screaming. Mattel’s aim is to meet the needs of girls aged six and up who like robots, but want something cheerful they can hug.
The Fijits do have a charm in the way they move. Animatronics inside the body give real expression to the way they bow and bob their heads, and shake their hips in dance. Kids interact with them using voice recognition technology that simulates a conversation. You speak a programmed line, the robot responds, and you go back-and-forth, choosing lines of dialogue that cue up specific activities.
Fijits like to tell jokes, chat about the weather, discuss feelings, and more impressively, dance. They will generate their own dance music if you ask them to, but can also use their built-in microphone to listen and dance to songs playing from a stereo system too.
None of these are new tricks in the world of robotic buddies. The most significant twist is the LCD screen face, which has been tried without success by other robot makers (it offers a more animated face, but one that looks like a cartoon). Mattel has figured out that with a screen, not only can you better animate a face, but you can also have it lit up in different colours and patterns for more expressive moods.
I’m intrigued by a hidden feature. You can download “sonic chirps” from Mattel that, when played for a Fijit to hear, will unlock new activities and features. Mattel has wisely made sure that these are just variations of the jokes, chats, and dances already included. Parents need not worry about some secret ability not listed on the box.
I don’t think the Fijit Friends are in any danger of creating the craze that Furby dolls did (they had the illusion of learning how to speak). They are so syrupy-cheerful that I think they might be off-putting for some kids, but for those fall for the animated giggles, the voice-recognition works fluidly and the animatronic puppetry is very charming.