Since the dawn of the iPad, designers and developers have wrestled with what a book should be in the era of the touchscreen.
There’s a strong defined language associated with paper products — a shared cultural memory and sense of expectation that doesn’t always translate well to the screen. Robbed of a book’s tactile nature, book apps too often veer towards gimmickry, boasting oddball ‘futuristic’ navigation or aping their real-world ancestors with fake flippable pages.
Fundamentally, though, a book is about providing information to a reader; and a good book does this in an engaging way, with a great sense of clarity and smarts, whether it’s the latest slice of fiction, a graphic novel, or a tome on science. For years now, Touchpress has shown that it absolutely gets this, and its breakout hit The Elements subtly rethought books for the digital age. Neatly laid out pages were augmented by hundreds of photographed objects that could be spun and manipulated. Molecules uses its predecessor as a springboard to further greatness.
Elements of detail
The app is broken down into an introduction and 14 chapters, each covering a distinct aspect of molecules. The index sets the scene, offering chapter titles next to lazily rotating illustrative photographs. On entering a chapter, you swipe your way through pages in landscape or scroll a single vertical strip in portrait. The text is informative and engaging, friendly but not fluffy. Illustrative photography briefly rotates as you flip to a new page in landscape, begging interaction. Objects can be spun around with the flick of a finger; videos can be played and reversed at will.
The overall effect is reminiscent of a book you might find in the world of Harry Potter, albeit running on a high-tech tablet rather than printed on magical parchment; it makes the material feel more alive. And in Molecules, this extends to the molecules themselves — tap one on the page and it zooms to fill the screen; you can then drag its component parts about, increase the temperature around it, and adjust a ‘femtoseconds per second’ gauge to slow down time and scrutinise vibrations. The simulations, say Touchpress, are scientifically accurate, based on an engine developed by the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group at the University of Illinois.
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A sense of discovery
Even so, this in itself might seem an unnecessary gimmick, but any thoughts in that direction miss the point. As the text says, molecules are often represented as static 3D models and renderings or dead pieces of plastic, whereas in reality they are alive and in constant motion. Through showing that molecules locked into crystal structures are “constantly vibrating”, in illustrating how those “floating free in liquid solutions are tumbling, spinning, twisting, turning, and writhing around”, and in enabling you to manipulate what you see on screen with a finger, Molecules provides greater immediate insight into the subject matter than any printed volume ever can.
So again, Touchpress has provided a modern take on a coffee-table book, on a subject likely to intrigue and delight anyone with an interest in science and the building blocks of the world. If there’s any downside it’s that there’s perhaps less ambition evident than in Touchpress’s truly masterful Journey’s of Invention, which had a playfulness and sense of slightly experimental (but carefully considered) design that propelled it further beyond its contemporaries; but that Molecules ends up second-best to one of the publisher’s own products doesn’t mean it’s any less essential.
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