Touch Press Blog

Blog RSS feed

Protect π: Touch Press Protests New European Ruling

Posted by

New Pi Symbol

Source: Commissioner of Numbers for the EU

Here at Touch Press we are surprised and disappointed to learn that the European Union has decided to stop using the π symbol.

Yesterday, Commissioner of Numbers for the EU, April Morio, announced that: “Pi is one of Europe’s great contributions to mathematics but, as we move towards a more federal Europe, the current symbol over-emphasises the contribution of one country. To make things fairer to all of Europe, we have decided that pi shall now be written in a more pan-European fashion. Going forward, the area and diameter of all circles inside the EU will be calculated using the new pi symbol.”

At Touch Press we have decided to protest this change and will be using π wherever possible. We will NOT be updating our app, Incredible Numbers by Professor Ian Stewart, to reflect this change and we will stick to the old style of π.

If you agree please share this post and help protect π.

The Making of Incredible Numbers – Part 1

Posted by

Here at Touch Press we like to tinker and experiment. Early ideas float their way around the office like balloons, and are poked and prodded and iterated until only the best remain. Some of these ideas are gifted at birth and soar straight to the top, others fight their way through and morph beyond all recognition along the way, and some don’t quite make the cut.

In this series of posts we thought we’d give you a sneak peak at some of the early prototypes from our latest title – Incredible Numbers by Professor Ian Stewart – that explores the beauty of mathematics. We use Mathematica for rapid prototyping on most of our projects, and for Incredible Numbers it was particularly useful.

Let’s start with prime numbers. Primes crop up everywhere in mathematics. We find them in modern cryptography, in nature, and in regular polygons. They are littered throughout the integers seemingly at random, and they are interesting precisely because mathematicians have been unable to predict exactly when they will show up next.

So we started by listing the primes:
(You’ll need to install the free Wolfram CDF Player to view the interactive sections of this blog.)

This is great. It tells us that there are a lot of prime numbers (in fact the primes extend to infinity) and there’s no obvious pattern when we view them as a list of digits like this. That makes sense: mathematicians are yet to find a pattern in the primes regular enough to let them predict where they are with certainty. But that isn’t to say that there is no pattern at all – either we haven’t found it yet or there is a random element that makes the primes fundamentally unpredictable.

Next, we tried highlighting the primes on a number line:

So now we can easily see the relative spacing between the primes. It still looks pretty random! OK, how about if we arrange the integers in a grid, then remove the composite numbers to leave only the primes?

Still no discernible pattern, but that’s not the end of the story. Stanislaw Ulam was keeping himself entertained by doodling during a boring lecture in the 1970s, and he discovered that if you arrange the integers in a spiral grid, then the prime numbers seem to form distinct diagonal patterns. The Hunting for Primes section of Incredible Numbers lets you explore this pattern in depth. And the result looks something like this:

Primes_UlamSpiral_iPad

Incredible Numbers by Professor Ian Stewart is available on the App Store for iPad now.


Sign up to the Touch Press newsletter

Yes, Apps Can Be Art!

Posted by

Today is the day of reckoning: the day we find out if Disney Animated wins a SXSW Interactive Award in the Art category. We’ve been incredibly lucky lately, receiving lots of external recognition for this treasure of an app that’s so close to our hearts. But this time it’s a bit different: we’ve been shortlisted for an art award. But can an app be art?

Whether or not something is art is a question that has been posed for about as long as art has been defined. Art is by nature fluid, its boundaries always changing. Only 100 years ago, flower arranging and needlework were considered art, while photography and film were certainly not. I strongly believe that apps can be part of today’s arts spectrum: painting, sculpture, dance, installation, theatre, music, film, photography and now, creative apps.

The very fluidity of art ensures that it is always the subject of debate, and that’s why I don’t assume all will agree with me. When MoMA purchased video games for its collection in 2012, they received an onslaught of criticism. As one MoMA curator described it, ‘all hell broke loose’. There was a barrage of tweets and esteemed art critics made claims like: ‘exhibiting Pac-Man and Tetris alongside Picasso and Van Gogh will mean game over for any real understanding of art’.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, art, right now, is:

“The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

So can apps be the above?

Yes, yes and yes!

Firstly our process shares many parallels with other art forms. For instance, like devised theatre, we never quite know what we’re going to end up with when we embark on the conception and creation process. We come together with our source material, and work out how we’re going to use it as a jumping-off point to delight audiences in a new way. We have to build room for this uncertainty and imagination into the way we work. We’re pretty sure we’ll end up with something awesome, but at the beginning we really don’t know precisely what it’ll be.

As the dictionary definition states, art should involve ‘creative skill’. A great degree of creative skill in required in the genre of app we produce. By nature every app brings together a mixture of different types of media. The best apps emerge when a group of people work together who have very different skills, but share a creative vision. Touch Press’ team specifically includes people with backgrounds in television, software engineering, publishing and design. Whether the task is coding or storyboarding, they all express ‘the application of creative skill’, each in their own unique way.

To focus on coding, it’s one of those skills that isn’t so widely perceived as a creative art, but it genuinely can be. Here’s an example: in Disney Animated we needed to find a way of presenting animated film clips in a way that simultaneously showed the film clip itself but also the process of how the animation came together. In one visual, cohesive experience we needed to convey both the final animation playing and how it was made. Is that even possible? Yep – we worked it out and came up with the Layered Clip feature. Users can watch the clip as normal, but if they stroke downwards, they peel back the layers of the animation process, revealing early animation concept art, rough animation and cleanup animation. An artistic process is about constantly coming up with creative solutions to problems, and this is exactly what our software engineers did, and do all the time.

Creating technology is about crafting something completely unique; building from the ground up. In a mashed-up world, where sometimes nothing can feel original, where culture is constantly regurgitated and reformatted, treating the iPad as a canvas can produce refreshingly unique results. Technology follows Moore’s Law. This is exciting to artists because such rapidity of change prevents staleness. Therefore, if you’re an artist-come-technologist, you are by nature constantly pushing creative boundaries and hence looking at the world in new ways.

And finally, purpose. The dictionary definition states that art’s primary purpose should be beauty and emotional power. I remember the first time I opened The Elements. I admit, at first I was slightly overwhelmed – I hadn’t encountered the periodic table since I was about fifteen. I was drawn to tap carbon on the top right hand side. And suddenly there was this huge diamond twinkling and rotating vividly, hypnotically. And wow, I could touch it and rotate it. I’d forgotten that this element with such current murky political and environmental connotations also could hold so much beauty. Our smart phones and tablets have become so intimate to us that they offer a playground of possibility for emotional resonance.

The judges bravely opened up this debate when they tossed our Disney Animated app into the ring on the shortlist for the Art category of the SXSW awards. But poke around the App Store and you will indeed find gems of genuine beauty and emotional power – and not just from Touch Press. When it comes down to it, art can take the form of any medium. What really counts is why we make what we make. And that’s why apps can be art.

Connecting Through Collections

Posted by

The Elements

 

Collecting, as a hobby, is often associated with coins or postage stamps; Nicholas Sarkozy is said to be a keen philatelist, as is Maria Sharapova, although some slightly more unusual personal collections include Pez dispensers and purple glassware, or even skulls. In our Skulls app, Simon Winchester notes that ‘though [skull collecting] may at first seem macabre and bizarre’, it ‘has the added benefit of being entirely educational’.

Yet, it may often seem as if there are a multitude of obstacles to engaging with a physical collection. We sometimes have little time and little space to pursue the art of collecting, which can also be a slightly expensive interest when trying to source very rare or sought-after stuff. It can also be tricky to share a personal collection with a wider community, if it is stored at home or composed of bulky items. It may just not even be possible to collect items of interest, especially when dealing with something that can contain dangerous objects.

Even when museums and other public institutions hold physical collections, it’s not always feasible for enthusiasts to visit and interact with the objects on display. Digital platforms are emerging as a useful resource in this respect, as new digitisation projects mean that people are able to engage with historic, precious or unusual items that they may not be able to see in person. At Touch Press, we have worked closely with institutions such as the Science Museum on creating apps like Journeys of Invention, enabling users from all over the world to explore fascinating objects from the museum’s collections, no matter where they are. To us, this is a fantastic way of opening up the museum to people who may not be able to visit it in person, as well as being an unusual way of accessing each object’s story and seeing new links between different inventions thanks to the interactive ‘map’.

Even a unique (and occasionally dangerous) collection like the periodic table can be explored through an app such as The Elements or The Elements in Action. The ability to digitally access the periodic table makes a huge difference in how we can learn about and interact with individual elements – the app format brings a wealth of data and information together, along with 3D rotatable samples that breathe life into the digital collection.

A particularly interesting new format of digital collection can be found over at The Collectionary. One of the great things about a platform like this is that it makes it easier to virtually display a collection by sharing photos and facts online. The Collectionary connects people from all over the world via a shared love of everything from Disney memorabilia to vintage fashion pieces, opening up a global collecting community and allowing users to discover other collections that they may not have explored before.

Websites like The Collectionary, and apps like Journeys of Invention and The Elements, are intriguing examples of how digital platforms can change the way we interact with collections and the way that we can share our passions with others through technology.

What’s Appening: Citymapper

Posted by

Citymapper logo

One of the things I love most about apps is that they let you talk directly to your customer. Unlike a book or a movie, push notifications and updates mean that there can be a steady conversation between the people who create the app and the people who use it.

Another thing I love – and this is where the challenge lies – is that the app is such a new medium, that everyone from the most established software publishers to the pluckiest of startups, is trying to find out what works and what doesn’t. Everybody is constantly questioning whether what they do works and, if it does, how it can be made to work even better. 

Communicating with audiences is no different. Everything we do is a test and everything we write is constantly evaluated. That is why when someone does something outrageously brilliant, you have to step back and applaud them, no matter how envious you are of what they’ve done. So it was with a mixture of envy and awe that I read UK-based Citymapper’s App Store copy for their two most recent updates. They were, quite frankly, fantastic pieces of writing: entertaining, informative, witty and relevant. If you haven’t read Citymapper’s copy yet, I urge you to do so now. Here are a couple of extracts to give you a flavour:

City Mapper Paris (3.8 update):

We have the Metro (its like the tube/subway except it sound sexier and you’re not forced to stare at people), we have Velib (it’s the original cycle hire/bike share but with a silly basket), we have buses (with real-time), we have the RER (it’s not a train! it’s not a metro! it’s the RER!), and we even have trams and other things, or if we don’t yet, we will later. So rest assured dear user, one day when you are in Paris, lost, confused and probably heartbroken, the app will take care of you.

Btw why did the French person cross the road? To get to the other strike! Hahaha… 

Don’t worry, no French people can read this. We are in the safe hands of localisation technology and complicated app store settings menus.

Did we mention the app is now also in French? Yes it is (what do you think about that eh, Duolingo?).

 

Citymapper Berlin (3.9 update):

The app is also now fully translated to German (you know how hard it is to fit those long words into small spaces? Go on, try Bushaltestellenwegbeschreibung). Only works if you have your entire phone’s language setting set to German. Which you should really only do if you speak German or would like to act like you do.

We would like to take this moment to apologise to all Parisians for our previous notes. We did not realise that you are able to decipher UK English (a niche vernacular, normally requiring subtitles). The transport gods of poetic justice have punished us for our transgressions with confusing London tube strikes. We have decided to make it up by adding Transilien trains! Trains, now live in Paris. Please forgive us and ride a train today.

 

It helps of course that the app is a fine product, but copy like this makes me, as a user, sit up straight and take notice. It also inspires me to share the app with my friends, and that, I guess, is exactly what the Citymapper team hoped I would do. So, this envious copywriter offers a humble bow to the Citymapper team: well done.

I can’t wait for the next update.

Sam Aspinall appointed as new CEO of Touch Press, while Max Whitby takes on role of Director of Special Projects

Posted by

Max and Sam

Exciting changes are afoot at Touch Press. Four years after we released our ground-breaking iPad app The Elements, we are pleased to announce that Sam Aspinall will be taking over as CEO from Max Whitby at the end of February. Max will continue at Touch Press in the role of Director of Special Projects.

Sam joined us in the role of Chief Operations Officer in 2013, having previously served as Commercial Director of Mind Gym. As a Chartered Accountant and MBA, Sam combines commercial acumen and strong management skills with hands-on appreciation of what makes a great creative business.

Max has led Touch Press since he co-founded the business with Theodore Gray, John Cromie and Stephen Wolfram in 2010. Over the last four years, Max has overseen the creation of a broad range of award-winning apps that have collectively been downloaded over 7 million times and received international industry recognition.

In December of last year, Apple chose Disney Animated as Best iPad App of 2013, and in January we were honoured to be the recipients of a Digital Book Award, two Future Book Awards and a 2014 KAPi “Pioneering Team” Award.

Max says: “I am enormously proud of what we have achieved at Touch Press in our first four years. I am delighted now to hand the reins to Sam Aspinall as incoming CEO; I am confident that she will build on our creative excellence and deliver long-term value for our investors.”

We are thrilled to be moving forward with Sam and Max in their new roles as Touch Press continues to grow and innovate.

Hidden Musical Hierarchies

Posted by

Orchestra

A fascinating article from the BBC reports on the subtle hierarchies within string quartets; research by the Royal Academy of Music and the University of Birmingham suggests whilst that some groups can be fairly democratic in how they stay together, others will follow one particular player. It will be intriguing to see what information the team’s future research might reveal about similar arrangements within other types of music.

The subtleties of timing and leading can be slightly different within larger musical groups such as a symphony orchestra, where there is a conductor who guides the performance. However, the conductor must adapt their direction and technique to the style of each piece. In The Orchestra app from Touch Press, Esa-Pekka Salonen discusses conducting Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and notes that:

“To conduct that piece you really have to be like a gardener, you let the flower grow and you just clear space for it and you do a little bit of pruning… but what you want to do is create an illusion that it has grown on its own because of its DNA.”

Commenting in particular about conducting the flute solo at the beginning of the piece, Salonen states that “the conductor leaves the flutist alone in the beginning and cues the rest of the orchestra in once the flute is done.” From a musician’s perspective, double-bassist Simon Oliver comments on the organic nature of the introduction:

“Whenever we play it, what I love is the fact that we don’t know when it’s going to start… the audience just hush down and then, from this beautiful note, from nowhere…”


Discover more about how larger classical groups work with The Orchestra app – available from the iTunes store.

The World is Your Art Gallery with the New Barefoot World Atlas Expansion Pack

Posted by

Our popular Barefoot World Atlas app is expanding to include a new pack all about world art. Take a creative tour of the globe and learn about influential pieces of art, from The Great Wave of Kanagawa to an 18th-century ivory statue of the Buddha.

To celebrate the launch of the new ‘World Art’ pack, now available in the app, we’ve curated a small exhibition featuring five pieces of art from across the world:

1. Traditional Ox Cart
Costa Rica
20th century CE
BWA__Art_OxCart
From the mid-19th century to the 1930s, ox carts were used in Costa Rica mostly to transport coffee beans across the mountains to the coast. This beautiful ox cart is painted with typical Costa Rican designs of flower and star shapes, and decorated carts such as this one often feature in national celebrations and parades.


2. Devil Posts
South Korea
19th century CE
BWA_Art_Posts
More properly known as jangseung, or ‘village guardians’, these wooden posts are sometimes known as ‘Korean totem poles’ due to their similarity to Native American totem poles. The posts were placed on roads to protect villages from malicious spirits.


3. Mexican Indian Preparing Chocolate
Mexico
1553 CE
BWA_Art_Chocolate
This painting of a woman pouring chocolate comes from a 16th-century manuscript called the Codex Tudela. It shows the importance of the drink to the Mexican Indian people for two main reasons – the lady is quite well dressed, and she is pouring the chocolate into a colourful and ornate drinking vessel.


4. Noah’s Ark
Senegal
1990 CE
BWA_Art_Noah
This brightly coloured painting tells the story of Noah’s Ark.  The artist has used a traditional technique called ‘under glass painting’, where paint is applied straight onto a piece of glass. The picture is then viewed by turning the piece of glass over so that the painting sits on the underside of the glass.


5. Liberty Leading the People
Ferdinand Victor Eugene Delacroix
France
1830 CE
BWA_Art_Liberty
Delacroix created this piece during the year of the French Revolution that overthrew King Charles X. The French government bought the painting and quickly removed it from public view, as they worried that it might encourage the crowds to riot again.

Why not also take a look at our other new pack, ‘International Football’, and discover some fantastic new football knowledge in time for the 2014 World Cup.

‘World Art’ and ‘International Football’ are available for in-app purchase now through the Barefoot World Atlas app.

Brand New ‘International Football’ Pack for Barefoot World Atlas

Posted by

image-1

2014 is the year of the FIFA World Cup Finals in Brazil, so it’s a great time to start early and get exploring the new ‘International Football’ pack for our Barefoot World Atlas app.

Now available in the app, ‘International Football’ is a world tour of teams from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe that enables children and families to learn about all the national teams by viewing their kits, their stadiums, their current line-up and much more.

To celebrate the launch of the ‘International Football’ pack, we’ve selected some great stats about five teams that have qualified for this year’s World Cup:

Brazil
Current FIFA ranking – 10

The inventors of samba soccer, Brazil are also the most successful national football team in the history of the FIFA World Cup, and their passionate and dedicated fans will be hoping they can win the World Cup for the 6th time in their home country this summer.

Germany
Current FIFA ranking – 2
Germany is the only country to have won both the Men’s and Women’s World Cups. Their nickname is ‘Der Mannschaft’, simply meaning ‘The Team’.

Iran
Current FIFA ranking – 34
The world’s top international goalscorer, Ali Daei, played for Iran, and the Azadi Stadium, where they play their home matches, holds close to 100,000 people!

Algeria
Current FIFA ranking – 27
This team has one of the best nicknames in world football – The Desert Foxes – and their rivalry with Egypt is perhaps the fiercest on the planet!

Costa Rica
Current FIFA ranking – 32
Costa Rica are one of the best sides in the region and the world; they have qualified for four World Cups and have won the Copa Centroamericana no less than seven times to date.

 

Why not also go on a globetrotting artistic tour with our other new pack, ‘World Art’, and interact with fantastic pieces of art from all over the world.

‘International Football’ and ‘World Art’ are now available for in-app purchase from the Barefoot World Atlas app.

Am I really that old?

Posted by

Apple just released a video and website in celebration of the 30th birthday of the Macintosh. It features one person for each year since the first Mac was released in 1984. I represent 1987, proving both that I’m really old, and that I peaked early.

They asked everyone who appears in the video what they thought the future of creativity and the Macintosh was. I found this question completely exasperating, until I realized that the right answer is that there is no answer. The thing that makes any good tool interesting is precisely that you can’t predict what it will be used for in the future, because if you could, you’d being doing that today, not some time in the future. Apparently they liked that answer because they let this quote pretty much define the future of the Macintosh:

“The great power of tools like Mathematica and the Macintosh is precisely that you cannot predict where they’re going to go.”

Theodore Gray

The thing I did that pegged me in 1987 was to develop a new kind of user interface for interactive symbolic computing, in the form of the first Notebook interface for Mathematica (a technical computing system created by Stephen Wolfram starting around 1986). I did that, of course, on a Macintosh. I think the first one I wrote code for that project on had 512K of memory, but it wasn’t until we got the 1MB upgrade that it could actually run the whole system.

Mathematica (always running on a Mac, of course) has been the secret sauce in nearly everything interesting I’ve done since then. When I started collecting elements and needed to create a detailed website, I wrote Mathematica code to write the HTML for me: That’s http://periodictable.com. When I decided to make an app out of my book The Elements: A Visual Exploration I built the entire contents of it, including everything actually visible on the screen, with Mathematica code. That turned into Touch Press, the company I founded together with Max Whitby, John Cromie, and Stephen Wolfram with the goal of doing more apps as interesting as our first.

We use a lot of different software at Touch Press to create our apps, but any time I need to do something myself, it’s always with Mathematica on a Mac. The snow effect in Disney Animated prototyped in Mathematica. The interactive colormaps that let you see an overview of every Disney animated movie ever made in a single image? Created entirely in Mathematica.

 

There’s no possible way I could have predicted in 1987 that I’d end up using this crazy tool to do that kind of stuff. Even less so that I’d end up in an Apple video in front of a giant computerized machine that was busy stitching an intricate pattern into a quilt. It’s my girlfriend Nina Paley’s machine, but yes, of course, the pattern was computed using Mathematica, on a Macintosh.

So when they asked me what I thought I’d be doing with a Mac in ten years, I’m like, WHAT? First off, I have not the slightest idea, and second, if I did, you can be sure I’d be doing it right now. But sadly it’s in the nature of the beast that it’s going to take me a full ten years to figure out the answer to that question.