At school the only subjects to truly capture my attention were the sciences. I was always utterly enamoured with space, the not so final-final frontier. Today, many years later, I realise that space is far from a singular topic, but, rather, a subject in a constant state of flux further sub-divided into many schools of thought far beyond my level of comprehension. Such a vast topic can be understandably daunting—especially for young students—but everybody has to start somewhere; somewhere like the solar system.
Solar Walk utilises a fully-explorable 3D model of the solar system to make the subject interactive and informative helping to encourage seedling scientific minds. By introducing new found lovers of space to the fundamental make-up of our celestial home it can help build a solid platform of knowledge that can be used to undertake a deeper, more complex interest in the cosmos. Join me after the break to find out how Solar Walk stacks up!
Bringing the Solar System to You
Although the sciences—biology, chemistry, and physics—were by far my favourite subjects in school, the teaching methods employed were a source of constant frustration. We’re all accustomed to the uninspired classroom diagrams of the solar system drawn on whiteboards and textbooks failing to give any sense of scale or grandeur to the topic. Solar Walk is one of those apps that could potentially revolutionise teaching methods by allowing students to discover the science of space for themselves at any pace they like.
Upon opening the app, an impressive fly through of the Milky Way is initiated, complete with scientifically accurate distance estimates as you speed closer to Earth, giving a real sense of scale to the expanse above our heads. An interactive 3D model of the solar system is the focal-point of Solar Walk, allowing for planets, moons, and the Sun to be explored from any angle with a simple zoom, click, and drag. The model is automatically set to full-scale mode from the outset, meaning that the celestial objects featured are accurately positioned with true distances between them thus allowing for a great sense of scale to be experienced.
Occasionally, it can be helpful to view a scaled-down version of the model to make it easy to place certain objects; to that end, there is the Orrery mode which condenses the model enough to see the full solar system in close proximity. Graphically, Solar Walk delivers a fairly good level of detail and quality, although not quite the ‘cutting-edge’ standard claimed by the development team.
The most impressive examples of Solar Walk’s graphics can be found on Venus, the Moon, and Mars with their respective craters and geographical landmarks displayed in great detail and locational accuracy; however, there is a rather unfortunate omission of the lunar landing sites, a small detail that would have been greatly welcomed.
There are several other powerful features on offer beyond the base 3D model. Navigating to the app’s other features is done from four menu options positioned in each corner of the screen with the main-menu on the bottom right. Specific objects can be found by searching with the magnifying glass search tool which shows a list of all objects featured throughout the app.
The best use of the search facility can be found by looking up 3D models of satellites orbiting the Earth, including the International Space Station and Hubble Telescope. The models shown are accurate depictions of the real structures in orbit and give a small but interesting insight into the technology.
One of my favourite features of Solar Walk is the Time Machine positioned at the top-right of the interface. This remarkable feature allows the clock to be set at any time and for the exact position of any planet to be accurately shown at that point. You can also two-finger scroll over the clock to cycle through time automatically allowing for the orbits of satellites, moons, and planets to be followed as time ticks over—the faster you scroll, the quicker time flies. It’s in this area that Solar Walk really impresses, along with the ability to ‘fly’ through the solar system whilst scrolling, the app does a great job of showcasing the extraordinary size of our home in the cosmos.
Education, Education, Education
As much fun as Solar Walk can be its real value lies with education. Many apps focus too much on games and quirky animations to make absorbing information easier sometimes losing sight of the real task at hand; however, the hallmark of a great educational app lies with its ability to make the subject alone fun and engaging—regardless of magnitude or difficulty.
To that end, Solar Walk proves itself to be more than just a collection of fancy CGI’s by supplementing its interactive interface with informative content, fusing fun and education together. To retrieve the app’s informative content simply hit the top left info button when viewing any object to read the related details and technical data.
The educational content provided can be of conflicting detail in parts with the Sun’s profile for example giving complex jargon-filled explanations of the star’s inner-workings. In most other areas the level of detail is sufficient enough for beginners to understand and learn from; however, for the more advanced student or enthusiast the information may not be sufficient enough to advance existing knowledge. The lack of in-depth information may limit the Solar Walk’s longevity and usefulness over time, but the app is more than capable of providing the initial spark of knowledge from which a more specialist interest can be taken.
Perhaps the best educational feature of Solar Walk is the selection of movies available from the main menu. The topics covered range from the Zodiacal constellations, Earth’s seasonal changes, and a planetary size comparison, all showcased in a concisely informative manner. Despite the good quality of the movies and their level of helpfulness, there is definite room for an expansion of the topics covered with dozens of important theories and principles to showcase, perhaps something to look forward to in future updates.
Overall, the educational value of this app is plain to see; by making space an interactive subject Solar Walk can be an invaluable resource for showing that the topic need not be a chore to get to grips with. Although not intended as a digital textbook, this app would benefit from greater coverage of important topics like the asteroid belt, gravity, and the galaxy as a whole.
Not Perfect, But Close Enough
Solar Walk is one of those rare apps that manages to combine a well-designed and polished interface with impeccable performance; even with intensive use—fast scrolling with Time Machine, for example—the app doesn’t break a sweat. Despite having a slight information deficiency in parts, the content provided is still of a high standard for beginners and new students. The movies feature is easily my favourite section, presented in a way that can be of great use to students, and with potential to make it even better.
With the ever-increasing advances of technology into classrooms around the world, apps like Solar Walk may well prove to be the future of educational resources. Despite the sciences being in a constant state of flux, the information known about the solar system is one of the rare topics to be relatively safe from obsoletism; as a result, the app can be re-used with new students or children in the classroom or at home for years to come. I can happily recommend Solar Walk and encourage that any parents or educators give it a try, you never know, you may well encourage the next Einstein.
Get closer to the solar system with Solar Walk and its fantastic 3D model of the planets, moons and the Sun. Never before has an app managed to give a true sense of scale and magnitude to our celestial home; informative and fun, Solar Walk is the future of educational resources.8