How may Augmented reality apps for space lovers be out there? What is the best space augmented reality apps? We wanted to find an answer to these questions. The answer is there are quite a few, with different levels of quality and features. AR is our field, our bread and butter. In order to answer these questions, we have done a fair share of research. For saving your time and energy, and also because it is fun to explore and try the apps.
We are gonna focus first on what is available on the Apple Augmented Reality ecosystem first. We promise to move over the Android and Windows side in further articles. AR has taken a central position in the Cupertino company product strategy since the presentation of the iOS 11. Back in the days, it launched ARKit, huge help for developers looking to create AR experiences. Probably not the place to expand about it, but to make the story short, it has helped create and grow the number of AR applications available on the Apple store. Some of those are related to space exploration and we are gonna review the ones we found more appealing.
Before you ask, we have reviewed apps that do not need augmented reality glasses or especial headsets to use them. The first group of AR apps that we can find on the iTunes store are sky exploration applications. In that group we include the following ones:
Defined by their own words as the “AR Guide To The Sky Above”, its interface and design make it one of the best apps available for astronomy enthusiasts. By pointing the iPhone camera to the sky and holding it, it quickly identifies the different celestial bodies. A live 3D map of the sky in your hands. You can navigate and find constellations, planets or even the International Space Station. You can even explore the object!
It does have some worth mentioning premium features. Like the ability to organize night sky tours for a given location. You can also bring the Solar System into your home or classroom (not as good as having a model of the solar system in your hands though), making it a collective experience with multiple devices. Regardless if you decide to pay for the premium features of the app, it’s free version is packaged with enough features for us to enjoy it.
From the Fifth Star Labs, this stargazing app shares similar functionality. Point overhead to automatically identify stars and constellations in the sky. It won the Apple Design Award 2014, and it is available for iPhone and iPad. Unlike the Night Sky app, it does not offer a free tier. Although, with a reduced price of 2.9$ is an affordable alternative to use paper star charts. The augmented reality mode helps you orientate and learn the different constellations effortlessly.
They claim to be “The top educational & augmented reality astronomy app” in the App store. Using GPS technology, a 3D model of the sky and all the AR bells and whistles, Star Chart calculates – in real time – the current location of every star, planet and moon (yes, our moon). Letting us chart the sky and learn about all the visible stars of the northern and southern hemispheres. It is supposed to be a cool stargazing companion alternative. The aesthetic aspect is appealing, depicting constellations using beautiful artwork by 17th-century astronomer Johannes Hevelius. Although, some of their reviews point out problems with the interface and the user experience.
We did not find the app particularly difficult to handle but it might not be the strongest competitors out of the three.
Another group would be the one comprising applications with Space as a central theme. Being the goal of the app, either educational or just to build a bridge to get us closer to the Space exploration universe.
Created by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, this app belongs to the former category. It was originally designed to be used in conjunction with one of the ABC TV shows, Stargazing live. It offers three different AR experiences or missions. To explore a somehow detailed planet Jupiter model. To Assemble the International Space Station, moving and rotating the diverse modules, as if you were in zero gravity. And last, but not least, protect the ISS from space debris with some futuristic lasers.
The app is promising, but to be honest, it is far from a polished experience. We were not able to make it work perfectly. Forcing you to recalibrate the AR settings from time to time. A real shame because it has all the components for makes us happy: planet Jupiter, a spacecraft to pilot, lasers.
“The first people who will visit Mars are sitting in a school today. To help inspire these students, Lockheed Martin created Mars Walk”.
Falling on the educational category, we have this app from Lockheed Martin. Built with NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory as partners, it promises an exciting tour on the red planet. It does require at least a cardboard device to fully enjoy the VR experience. We are well aware it is not strictly AR but VR. But to be frank, it is pretty cool. You can visit the landing spots for InSight, Viking and Curiosity missions. You can experience a 360 red dust storm in a Martian crater. You can follow the rover Curiosity collecting samples. Should we say something else?
Even NASA tiptoes on AR. We have two applications, Spacecraft 3D (developed by Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and NASA 3DV. The first one is an AR application that lets you interact and learn about some of the legendary NASA space crafts used to explore our solar system and the universe. It is a great educational tool, as it lets us get closer to the engineering of each device. We can rotate and manipulate the different vessels, from Mars Curiosity rover, or Hubble telescope, control robotic arms or store and unfold the solar panels.
The only catch might be the need to print an AR target to work with the app. You need to download and print it. Once you have it, you can point the iPhone camera to start playing with the app. It is a bit of a burden, but considering it all, it is not such a big deal.
We can say the same from NASA 3DV. You need as well the AR target (this time, it takes the shape of NASA logotype). It will let us play with different space crafts. The Space Launch System rocket, the Orion, ground infrastructure at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. All available. It has fewer features than Spacecraft 3D but still appealing.
As you have read, there are a good amount of apps focused on space. But not quite as much as we’d like to see. We like to think that we are delivering the best possible AR experience with our work. It is a different sensation when you can hold a planet in your hands. But for all those moments that it is not possible, keep our list of space AR apps at hand.