Ipod Astronomy: Augmented Reality Meets Stargazing

Star Walk is one of the planetarium apps I use on a regular basis that has transformed my stargazing. Has Apple placed us on the threshold of a revolution in mobile computing?

When it comes to new gizmos, I am neither a luddite nor a gadget head. I don’t have to have the newest thing. But neither am I afraid of them. I don’t eschew old technology. I love my old 1948 Smith Corona typewriter, though I’m not writing this essay on that particular machine. I love all of it, actually, though I do wish they’d make Ipods like they used to make typewriters, that is, to last. And perhaps with a bit more art-deco flair. But while I may love typewriter and ipod equally, I’m also a cautious adopter of technology. I have a deeply-held, seldom-voiced suspicion that we might, as a species, be a little more cautious in our adoption of new technology, at least until we have a bit more thoroughly sussed out the effects of it on our minds, bodies and communities. 

The mobile computing and communications revolution is a case in point. Lots of people have commented (especially in higher education, where my day-job is located) on the effects of mobile tech on the younger generation’s sense of place, attention to their immediate surroundings, and ability to communicate in general in real space as opposed to cyberspace. I’ve noticed some of these things myself, and my specific field within higher education, study abroad, there has been lots of hand-wringing about how you just can’t go abroad anymore. The mobile tech is always there to mediate a traveller’s experience of the new and hopefully foreign place, and the internet is present enough to allow our traveller to keep one foot firmly planted in his or her social networks.

I used to nod my head when I heard other study abroad people talk about this. I might have even clicked my tongue. The world was going to pot. We were doomed. But recently I’ve started looking at how mobile technology might not just mediate a traveller’s experience with a new place and culture, but actually augment it. Could their little hand-held computers actually help them have a deeper experience? We recently equipped a bunch of students going to Asia with the latest generation touch-controlled Ipods, loaded up with a battery of navigation and translation apps. We tested some of them out and some seem promising and some seem a little silly, like the emergency Japanese phrase app that will actually speak for you in certain situations, phrases like “Don’t shoot!” (hard to imagine the app being quick enough for that one to work) or the ominous “Those are not my drugs!”. We hope the translations were field checked.

In order to understand our student experiences abroad using their ipods, I was given an ipod as well. This is kind of like a recovering alcoholic being given the keys to the Guinness factory. After a few days of using it, I started calling it my “AI”, for “Artificial Intelligence.” The science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson used this term for a very powerful, personalized supercomputer that would follow everyone around in the near future and be ever-ready to access historical documents, correspondence, help with computations, etc. After using the ipod for a few months, I think we’re almost there.

I quickly decided to apply the AI to my moonlighting as a amateur astronomer. Indeed, my daytime and nighttime pursuits are connected by a desire to travel. During the day I may plan an upcoming trip to Japan, thousands of miles away, to see how our students are using their AIs in the field, and at night I travel trillions of miles to check out distant galaxies. The two kinds of travel are not entirely dissimilar, though I don’t yet need a translation app for my celestial travelling.

Or do I? Not for alien languages, but for alien concepts. The universe and our vantage point in it is a very difficult thing to grasp. We’re one planet revolving around one star in about 400 billion in our Milky Way galaxy, itself one of billions of galaxies in our universe. The distances and time are notoriously difficult to really appreciate. So is the geometry.

Humans are to be forgiven for sticking to the flat-earth hypothesis for so long (though now it’s a pig-headed to persist in this heresy.) The idea of standing upright on the giant sphere does strike us as somewhat counterintuitive. Though I have to admit that sometimes, during long observing sessions under a clear sky studded with stars, planets, the band of the Milky Way sprawling from horizon to horizon, and the zodiacal light rising like a aurora in the pre-dawn eastern sky, I have had the distinct feeling that not only was I on a sphere, but that I was also falling into the sky. No drugs involved, I promise, just a shift in perspective from hours of watching the sky slowly change around me. It was dizzying and incredibly illuminating, and represents for me one of my biggest achievements as an astronomical observer: actually feeling the reality of the our vantage point.  The correct words for that emotional cocktail is delight and awe. If our armed forces could drop that from the sky instead of bombs, we’d win every heart and mind in sight.

But for most of us, most of the time, it’s hard to imagine the sky above as deep space in which up or down or left or right depends on your perspective, that you might as well, next time you look at the sky, imagine that you’re looking down as out, disturbing as that thought might be. It’s hard to conceptualize how the stars rise and set like the sun, except the ones nearest the poles that simply spin in great circles throughout the night.

Here’s where our little AIs can come in handy. There are a few apps out there right now that use the Ipod’s internal gyroscope (and, in the case of the iphone, the GPS feature) to allow the AI to calibrate itself to the night sky, therefore showing the user an augmented view of the piece of sky just behind the AI. The app I use for this is called Star Walk; there are others. I open Star Walk, shake it to activate the gyroscope function and the Ipod’s video camera, and then I line up the virtual image of the moon (or other visible sky object) with the video image of the actual sky. Once I calibrate it like this, wherever I turn the AI, the screen will show me what I’m actually looking at. The name of the planet, even a major satellite passing by, the names and shapes a constellations and even some art to clarify their fanciful designations, and more. It’s a great tool to help learn the night sky and everyone should try it. But it’s more than that, too.

Since I’ve established already that I’m not given to flights of hyperbole when I talk about tech stuff, please take this next sentence with as much gravitas as you can muster: I think it’s a game changer in human perspective on the universe.

This augmented reality has tremendous potential as a tool to help people teach themselves the sky. I was about to write “night sky” but realized that would be inaccurate. One of the difficult concepts to grasp is that the stars are always up (or out, over, down) there, even when the sun is out and preventing us from seeing them. Calibrate the AI to the sun during the day and you can see which constellation the sun is currently in (as I wrote this essay it was in Gemini) and where exactly Orion was when not hunting at night (sunbathing, it turns out.)

Amatuer astronomers used to joke about a mythical “cloud filter” that would allow their telescopes to see through cloudy nights. The AI actually simulates this concept. You can look through clouds as well as sunlight (as long as you can calibrate it if you’re using the Ipod Touch…the Iphone doesn’t need that step). Actually, you can look through everything.

I experienced this the first time I ever tried Star Walk. I was sitting in my office. The Ipod kept an transparent image of the office on the screen, but showed me all the stars behind the walls. All of a sudden, my office felt confining and tiny, a battleship gray metal and drywall rejection of the greater reality of place in the universe. I then placed the AI on my desk and realized something else. It was “looking” right through the earth itself! I could look down and see that I was standing on the constellation  Sagittarius, right now in the sky over Japan.

The actual effect of this is the same vantage as being out in the middle of space, and able to see around me in a complete sphere. It’s an experience that is, at once, atomizing and diminishing. We are alone, and we are tiny. The universe is huge, and all around us. One of my dearest held quotes about the point of observational astronomy (that is, looking at the night sky) comes from John Dobson, a monk-turned telescope-maker for the masses: “You were not born in some little town in Pennsylvania: you were born into a universe.”

The AI can help reveal that for you, like a magic pair of glasses that lets you see the true face of the cosmos. That’s a big deal, and it’s accessible to everyone with the latest Ipod/Iphone. Give it a try. It’s not illegal and it just might expand your mind.

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