Touch Press Blog

Blog RSS feed

News: Touch Press at the Palace

Posted by

Sam meets Her Majesty

Sam meets Her Majesty

Earlier this week, Touch Press CEO Sam Aspinall attended a reception with The Queen at Buckingham Palace. Sam was invited by the Duke of York to an event celebrating the UK’s most promising digital entrepreneurs.

We’re incredibly honoured to have been invited and to have met some very talented and inspirational people – we’re all looking forward to future developments in UK Tech!

Touch Press’ music apps win RPS Music Award

Posted by

Fiona Barclay, producer of the music apps, accepts the award. Photo: Simon Jay Price

We are incredibly honoured that Touch Press’ music apps have received a prestigious RPS Music Award for Creative Communication.

The Royal Philharmonic Society writes on their website: ‘Touch Press’s three iPad apps – The Orchestra, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and The Liszt Sonata – represent a new pinnacle in the marriage of performance, interpretation and new technology. In shedding light on aspects of our art which so often remain obscure, they possess a rare power to take every listener – regardless of age and expertise – straight to the music’s beating heart.’

Thank you to the Royal Philharmonic Society for the award, and to everyone who
has downloaded our apps.

The winners. Photo: Simon Jay Price

Five Questions: Jim Dwyer

Posted by

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist and author, Jim Dwyer, talks about the making of his latest, interactive book False Conviction: Innocence, Guilt & Science, recently released by Touch Press in partnership with the Innocence Project and the New York Hall of Science.


JimDwyerHeadshotNov2013Both False Conviction and your previous book Actual Innocence investigate cases of the wrongly convicted. What draws you to this subject?

​Mistakes are the greatest teachers, if you’re willing to look at them head on. That’s why transportation safety boards investigate airplane crashes and train derailments, and why medical groups examine how serious errors are made in the treatment of patients.

A wrongful conviction is a gigantic fail: after all, an innocent person has been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury. And that’s only after professional detectives have conducted an investigation, and after highly-trained prosecutors have presented the case to a grand jury of 23 people and they have found probable cause to believe that the person committed the crime. How could so many people make the same mistake?

The title – “False Conviction” – also means false belief. Unwinding those beliefs really is an attempt to answer the question: how do we know what we “know”?

It’s not just an intellectual exercise. A wrongful conviction is a calamity in the lives of the people who are falsely imprisoned. And it’s dangerous for society – one person’s wrongful conviction is some criminal’s wrongful liberty.

One particularly striking aspect of your work is the immaculate attention to detail. With a book like False Conviction, which deals with important, real-life cases, how much work goes into the research before you can begin to write it?

​The stories don’t work unless they have the details that put us in the real world, in recognizable situations. A person sleeping on a couch. A room lit only by the glow of a clock radio. A man shopping for maple frosting, a television set to “The Smurfs”. These elements are all embedded in the ​records of cases, which can run to thousands of pages. An awful lot of time in court is spent hashing out procedural and logistical questions that are of no interest, so I’ve learned how to skim transcripts at high speed and find – I hope – the nuggets that matter. Besides transcripts, there are, of course, audio and video tapes, and police and laboratory reports, and judicial decisions. And there are interviews with the participants whenever possible.

I had access to the rich archives maintained by the Innocence Project. The project’s work has been a revolutionary force in our understanding of these issues and stories.

You come from a traditional print journalism background – what made you decide to write an interactive book for the iBookstore?

​I am indeed an old-school newspaper person; I was also a member of the first team at the NY Times to make extensive use of the web’s interactive powers for reporting and telling a major story. Back in 2002, I worked on a project called “102 Minutes” that used recordings, interactive graphics, video and traditional written narrative in a report on what happened inside the World Trade Center on September 11. That was an early lesson in the power of multi-media tools in story-telling. It also showed me how reporting for visual or interactive media can change the way you explore a story during the reporting phase. Writing forces you to think how a particular element or detail will fit into the written narrative. Telling a story with graphics and interactives makes other demands during research.

Those tools open up a subject in ways that writing alone cannot. ​

What is it about False Conviction in particular that makes it suited to this medium?

​It’s one thing to say that the way a question is asked can shape an answer; it’s quite another to experience it yourself through one of the interactive games. False Conviction has, for instance, video of a simulated crime; then the user is invited to pick out the culprit from a lineup. To see how cognitive bias works in our own minds makes it much more real than simply reading the findings of a study.

One of the great commandments of story-telling is: Show, Don’t Tell.

Do you see yourself writing more interactive books in the future?

​Yes – if I can find collaborators of the caliber of the folks at Touch Press and the New York Hall of Science. It was exhilarating. They taught me many things about a subject that I thought I already knew backwards and forwards.

Find out more about False Conviction: Innocence, Guilt & Science at: falseconviction.touchpress.com

Math on an iPad

Posted by

A lot of claims are being made about how electronic media and new platforms will revolutionize education. I confess that until now I’ve been a bit skeptical. For instance, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) open up higher education to the less privileged, or whether in practice they are only used by people who already have an extensive education.

However, I’m now convinced that devices like the iPad not only open up new routes to education: they go beyond it. They provide a new way to engage the public with math and science — and philosophy, music, and literature, for that matter. What convinced me is when Touch Press managed to turn a fairly dry stack of text and diagrams that I sent them into an app. It’s now out: Incredible Numbers. The reviews currently give it five stars, and it’s gone down really well with users. It’s easy and fun to use, and it makes important mathematical ideas intuitive and accessible to anyone.

It all started a couple of years ago, when my book publisher Profile wanted to start producing apps, possibly linked to books, and wondered if I’d be interested in working on a math app. It sounded an intriguing idea. I’ve always preferred breaking new ground to doing the same thing over and over again, though I do that too when the mood takes me. So I put together a big pile of material, loosely related to special numbers like 17 and pi. Along with short biographies of the mathematicians who’d discovered interesting features of those numbers, and some puzzles.

Profile got together with Touch Press, who make apps. Touch Press had access to Wolfram Research’s developer tools, including Mathematica, which provides a powerful way to do remarkable things quickly and accurately. I use it myself all the time for research. The material got edited and reorganised until it began to look like an app. By the time I got to play with an alpha version, it had progressed well beyond anything I’d originally expected.

When you launch the app, it offers you a choice of eight main topics: prime numbers, pi, nature, polygons, and so on. One of them is music. I’ll describe just one of the interactive topics that appears. It’s a way to break a sound wave up into very simple wave forms—pure notes, represented by sine curves. Mathematicians call this process Fourier analysis, and it’s pretty advanced. You don’t do it at school. It’s important: engineers use it all the time, it tells us about earthquakes, it makes digital cameras work.

On the app, you don’t even need to know what a sine curve is (though it does tell you if you want, and you’ll end up knowing even if you don’t want). You can create your own waveform just by tracing your finger across the screen. No formulas: any shape you want. And then you flick the lower part of the screen upwards, and the app starts to work out successive terms of the Fourier series. As it does so, it draws the sine waves, and it shows you how well those sine waves, when added together, approximate your designer wave. You can actually see how adding more and more terms gives an increasingly accurate description of your own personal wave. You can listen to what it sounds like, too.

You can also search for your birthday in the first million digits of pi, see how to make a regular 17-sided polygon, explore the paradoxes of Hilbert’s infinite hotel, and see how the wartime enigma code machine worked. Plus a lot more.

Everyone I’ve shown the app to is blown away by how easy it is to use. It’s not remotely like school lessons. Everything is done in a friendly, non-technical way, and it’s interactive. Even when a formula turns up (and some do, we didn’t shy away from them, but we do keep them under control) you can flick across it, change the symbols to numbers, and see what the formula really means. Touch some mathematician’s name, and up comes their biography. Touch a technical term and you get the definition.

When I was learning math, it was all pencil and paper and blackboards and chalk. This way is far more fun. Even mathophobes enjoy using it. Is it education? If it is, it’s education as never before. But what it really is, and what I personally prefer to promote, is motivation. I don’t want to teach people math: there are plenty of professionals doing that. I want to persuade people to engage with it, enjoy it, and appreciate what it’s for. If you can do that, the learning process becomes so much more pleasurable.

As a mathematician, I believe that my subject is of vital importance to humanity, and I’ve written plenty of books to argue the case. But I don’t think it’s enough to convince people that math is important. I want to change how they feel about the subject. I want them to experience how interesting it really is, once you get past the dry symbols and sums. I want converts, not just unengaged approval.

I’m beginning to believe that platforms like the iPad, used with imagination and intelligence, can help achieve that. And even if they don’t, it’s a lot of fun. We all gain from that.

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.