Solar Walk, from Vito Technology, is a beginner’s introduction to the Sun and the planets. Basic information about the distance from the Sun, the length of the day, and the internal structure of each planet is provided. It’s a simple app, really geared towards U.S. Grade School level.
At launch, the solar system is displayed with the planets all lined up for convenience, as a nice graphic. By default, the Earth is the first item of focus, brought up against the the celestial background. One can get more information about the Earth, or move on to another planet. In a nutshell, that’s the complete operation of the program.
Display at Launch
Accompanying the details of the planet is a dreamy sound track of celestial music by AstroPilot. It sets a nice mood. Sound can be turned off by touching the speaker icon on the bottom right. (The app runs only in landscape mode, by the way.)
Click on the “i” icon at the top left to bring up details of each planet. There are several panes of data there that can be scrolled up and down as well as swiped right to left. Things like how each planet got its name, astronomical facts, atmospheric composition and the internal structure are discussed.
When the data popover is not shown, there is an option to view the image of the planet in 3D, using the traditional Red + Cyan 3D glasses (not supplied). However, the effect is not particularly spectacular, and the feature doesn’t add much to the app. Use normal gestures to rotate the planet or view from another angle.
Touching the orrery icon at the bottom brings up a representation of the solar system, this time with the planets in their correct current positions. (Checked against Emerald Observatory.) This is a schematic only; neither the sizes nor the distances between the planets are to scale, but one can two finger pinch or swipe to change the overal size or orientation of the solar system. In this sense, the program fails to teach the beginner the relative sizes and the vast distance between the planets. I’ll admit that’s a challenge, but one that should have been accepted.
Orrery Mode (not to scale)
A sliding tape along the right side allows one to propel into the future or past, but only by minutes. That allows one to see how, for example, the moons of the planets change with time, but it’s not so good, in orrery fashion, for seeing the positions of the planets over the years. There should be a way to change the time increments: minutes, days, years.
I noted one problem with the display of astronomical facts, and that was for the Earth’s distance from the sun. Of course, the average distance from the Sun to the Earth is 1.0 Astronomical Unit (A.U.) by definition. But there is a superfluous number, 0.72333 A.U. in the display. The developer says that’s a mistake and will be removed.
I also noted that the sophistication and depth of the details for the Sun’s internal structure is out of sync with the corresponding data for the planets. For example, any grade school student can appreciate the details of the internal structure of Mars, but the description of the Sun goes into considerable detail in the Radiative Zone, the Convective Zone and the Photosphere. The discussion of the opacity of H- ions in the Photosphere, for example, will be lost on younger students.
I asked the developer about this, and the reply was: “we didn’t stick to any particular level of knowledge.” That’s an explanation, but remains unsatisfactory. It’s important that the customer be properly identified. Conversely, it’s important for the customer to know the academic level of the software before purchasing.
It would be helpful if there were call outs or labels to tie the layers in the planetary internal structure graphic to the corresponding text description. Finally, it would be nice if touching one of the planets at the launch screen were effective. As it is, the default is always Earth.
Saturn and its moons
Also, when viewing the information panel of the planet or Sun the speaker/mute icon inexplicably goes away. Once must be in the overall view mode to mute the music. That’s an annoying oversight.
Solar Walk is a nicely designed program, overall, but suffers from a lack of attention to details and intended scope. There is no explanation regarding the displayed scale of the solar system and graphically depicted sizes of the planets — which is misleading. The presentation level of the technical data is inconsistent, seemingly without an overlying philosophy, and the same knowledge can probably be more readily understood in its entirety by any good library book on the planets — of which there are many.
The program also dances around the pedagogical issue of whether a simple accumulation of data and facts constitutes education or whether it’s just reference material for those who already have a basic understanding. Solar Walk squeezes into a nebulous space of being neither.
If however, the goal is to provide a basic introduction to the solar system for 4th to 6th graders, with the intention of filling the gaps with more supervised discussion, then Solar Walk will do. Casual, non-technical adults may find it interesting for awhile. Technically minded adults should look elsewhere.
[UPDATE: Vito Technology Responds]
1. Concerning the orrery icon and view of planets in this mode, this view is made for search purposes only. So that the person could easily find any planet and see the order of planets how ther circulate around the Sun. Once you choose a planet and “fly” to it all relative sizes between planets, their moons and the Sun as well as the sizes of all objects of Solar System become real (of corse the sizes are scaled). If you zoom in or zoom out the planet you can easily see it.
2. The “Time Machine” can change not only minutes. If you tap either days, months or years at the upper panel you will immediately see that planets start moving much faster or slower depending on the speed you choose to drag the Time Machine scale. Besides if you are far in the future or past you may always tap the “now” button and you will be back to the present date. [The reviewer regrets missing this, but points out that documentation on that is scarce.]
3. Concerning the info in our app. Our app is not a scientific book that presents the detailed academic facts about Solar System. Our aim was to make a visual representation of our Solar System and to show how planets move in time to let people play with the Solar System model and understand it a bit better. [The reviewer adds that this is not made clear in the app’s description in the App Store.]
4. Now we are working on creating movies for Solar Walk. These movies will explain the technical detsils you were mentioning. There will be movies devoted to the comparitive sizes of planets, the Solar eclipse, parade of planets and other interesting facts concerning with functioning of our Solar System. [The reviewer will update the review and rating when this new version comes out.]