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Review: ‘Skulls’ from Touch Press for iOS

As our reviewer Chris Gustafson notes, Simon Winchester refers to Skulls as a “book.” Touch Press does indeed view their productions as books. In their vision statement the company’s founders observe, “Books are one of the great defining inventions of our civilization—and today they are poised for a revolution. Our goal is to create a new kind of book that makes use of emerging consumer platforms such as iPad, as well as the latest computation capabilities and high-performance visual media. We believe that we now have the capability to redefine the book, reinvent publishing, and forever transform the act of reading.” With titles such as Gems and Jewels, The Waste Land, and The Elements on their list, there is no question Touch Press is presenting today’s readers with transformative experiences.

Title: Skulls
Written and narrated by:
Simon Winchester 
Skull Collection by:
Alan Dudley
Photography by:
Nick Mann 
Developed by:
Touch Press LLP
iOS, requires  5.0 or later

Gr 6 Up-Skulls is an elegant, fascinating app, uniquely shaped by the strong essays of Simon Winchester, the stunning photographs of Nick Mann, and the quirky audio notes of skull collector Alan Dudley. Chapters, ranging from musings on skull anatomy to skulls in art, offer an essay by Winchester with a series of vivid, arresting photos. The text, which is displayed in white against a black background alongside beautifully illuminated photos, gives the sense of traveling through a museum exhibit. In portrait view, the display switches to a black text on a white screen.

Screen shot from 'Skulls' (Mann) Touch Press

Navigation is easy and intuitive, but full of surprises.  Scrolling down the right side of the screen activates wavy lines that connect images to hyperlinks in the essay. Tapping the link or the photo provides a full-screen, captioned version of the image that can be easily rotated and enlarged. One link from this page offers a screen that can be viewed used with 3-D glasses, while another (“View Species”) presents some basic factual information. Also available is “Alan’s Notes,” an audio file of collector Dudley briefly reminiscing about how he acquired each skull. Tapping the Wolfram Alpha icon pulls up more facts for each species.

Image from 'Skulls' (Mann) Touch Press

There’s plenty of information here, but what sets this app apart is the way reference is combined with essay and even wry humor. An example is the chapter introducing the collector, which features a photo of a leg with an electronic ankle tag attached to illustrate Dudley’s brushes with the law as he sought exotic skulls.

In his introductory chapter, Winchester refers to Skulls as a book, and if this is the future of eBooks, we are in very good hands. The app’s design encourages readers to engage with the key-word searchable text. They can also navigate between chapters from a contents link or by using a progress bar at the bottom of the screen.

The images, which are similar in size on the screen, can be compared on a “show comparison” page. Viewers scroll through an illustrated index and select up to four skulls, which will then appear in relative size on another screen.

Students and adults alike will be fascinated by these images and appreciate an opportunity to manipulate them for closer views. They ‘ll also enjoy Winchester’s audio narration, which is available on each page in this absorbing title.—Chris Gustafson, Whitman Middle School, Seattle, WA