Dig into history, art, the night sky and the human body with these superb AR apps
For over three years, Apple has pushed augmented reality – AR – hard. The fusion of virtual and real worlds aims to unlock new experiences, and Apple reckons it transforms “how you work, learn, play, shop and connect with the world around you”.
But AR is prone to gimmickry and so we’re going serious with this round-up. We want to unearth great AR apps that tackle learning (with a small side of play), showcasing how virtual 3D objects can provide you with a better understanding of subjects than traditional imagery, words and video.
Any fairly modern iPhone or iPad running iOS/iPadOS is capable of running AR apps – Apple lists supported devices on its website. And if you’ve a LiDAR-equipped iPhone or iPad, merging digital objects and the world around you will be even faster and smoother.
ARcheology – Dig Up History
$5/£5 • v1.70 • 159.4 MB • By Uprooted Software Inc.
You’ll need plenty of space – and a dinosaur enthusiast – to fully enjoy this misnamed app, which focuses on digging up fossils rather than human artifacts. (But, hey, when you’ve a great pun for an app name, go with it!)
Point your device’s camera at the ground, confirm your dig site, and get shoveling by tapping away with a finger. Eventually, fossils appear, and you’re then invited to get closer and find out more about what you’ve unearthed.
After multiple digs for any one creature, you’ll be able to gaze upon the assembled beast, which looms above you; and once your dino’s complete there’s a quiz to make sure you’ve ingested all of the facts.
Big Bang AR
Free • v1.0 • 209.8 MB • By CERN
Want to experience how it all began? With Big Bang AR, the creation of the universe kicks off in the palm of your hand. Make a fist, open it, and a virtual version of literally everything that exists explodes forth.
As Tilda Swinton narrates, you fast find yourself surrounded by a dizzying soup of particles. These subsequently form into atoms, stars and – eventually – our solar system. Naturally, this doesn’t happen in real-time – billions of years pass in mere moments.
Fortunately, you can pause at any point to take in the wonder, dig deeper into each chapter’s concepts, and shoot stills of mesmerizing moments to later gawp at in the Photos app.
Free • v2.1 • 112.1 MB • By BBC Media Applications Technologies Limited
The British are known for a stiff upper lip, but also a side dish of national kleptomania. Throughout the country’s history, its people blazed around the world, pilfered things, and then locked them inside of dusty museums.
This app gains you access to objects drawn from 30 such institutions, letting you get up close and personal with an Egyptian mummy, ancient armor, and more besides.
Especially on the larger display of an iPad, this app provides a blueprint for how history could be made more accessible. Even when examining the largely flat surface of Turner painting Bridge Over the Ticino, AR’s worth becomes clear as you explore every brushstroke, the virtual canvas mere inches from your face.
David Bowie is…
$10/£10 • v1.0.5 • 187 MB • By Sony Music Entertainment(Japan)Inc.
Back in 2013, a blockbuster exhibition of David Bowie started life at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and then spent five years touring the world. This app attempts to squeeze the entire thing into your iPhone.
Unlike some other artist-oriented apps, this one is happy existing in a virtual space on your desk. There, you explore David Bowie’s accomplishments, gaining insight into the life of a pioneering musician and artist.
For less money than you’d have paid for a few hours’ access to the original exhibition, you can explore the many songs, videos and images at leisure – and with the added advantage of not having to peer over other people’s heads.
Human Anatomy Atlas 2021
$25/£24 • v2021.1.64 • 1.5 GB • By Visible Body
If you want to understand how the human body works, you’ll have mostly perused illustrated textbooks. But now, it’s not just medical students who have access to cadavers – at least if we count those within the AR realm.
Depending on your area of interest, you can focus on a specific component of the body or stand an entire skeleton on your desk. In the latter case, you can then add systems (nerves; muscles), select elements, delve into details, and pretend you’re prepping for an E.R. reboot.
It’s overkill of the best sort. But if the price tag’s too rich, hang on for a regular sale – or focus purely on what makes people tick with Insight Heart ($2/£2) instead.
Free • v2.8.8 • 177.9 MB • By JigSpace Inc.
If you’ve ever found yourself wondering how an object works, subsequent steps can be frustrating. Short of taking something to bits – without knowing for sure you can put it back together – you’re at the mercy of whatever books you can find, or videos on YouTube. JigSpace rethinks such experiences by way of immersive AR.
Each item in its library is effectively a step-by-step guide. But instead of a set of images, you get AR models of everything from leaky taps to ancient Da Vinci machines. Objects can be spun and resized with ease, and if you get a hankering to make your own Jigs, there’s an app for that too.
Jonathan Yeo Studio
Free • v1.21 • 235.3 MB • By Jonathan Yeo
While David Bowie is presents a curated take on an artist’s life, Jonathan Yeo Studio is all about immersing yourself in an artist’s studio while they work. Said studio can be placed on your desk or – if you’ve room – expanded to full size, to make it feel like you’re actually in the room.
While in Yeo’s space, you can watch him paint chef Jamie Oliver over FaceTime, and listen in on their conversations. Alternatively, you can poke around elsewhere in the studio, unearthing various pieces of interactive content that further help you understand what it means to be an artist.
MauAR – Berlin Wall
Free • v1.4.1 • 310.4 MB • By BetaRoom UG (haftungsbeschrankt)
Although designed to be used when visiting Berlin, MauAR – Berlin Wall can be experienced anywhere in the world. Ideally, you need plenty of space, ready for the app to erect a fence and then a wall that stood for decades, separating families and communities as superpowers squared off.
There’s delicate narration and a genuine sense of history as you’re faced with key moments from the Berlin Wall’s past. The result is a sobering, powerful experience – one that provides a sense of scale and emotional heft that’s hard to get across in book form, or even with a movie. It’s an excellent showcase of AR’s value as a historical aid – and of how to provide deeper understanding into events we must collectively never forget.
Free + IAP • v8.4 • 992.1 MB • By iCandi Apps Ltd.
Almost all modern astronomy apps provide you with an augmented reality view that lets you map virtual information on to the real-world night sky. But this app takes things further in letting you pluck objects from its main view with a double tap, which can then be spun in 3D, or explored in AR by flicking a switch.
Splash out on a premium subscription and there are further AR goodies. Planetary portals are a nice idea, if a touch ambitious, aiming to have you walk to another planet’s surface but in reality being a touch flickery. The Grand Orrery, though, is gorgeous, letting you explore and interact with a virtual recreation of the solar system.