PopSci "Evolver" App Puts Reader Into The Stone Age

By Steve Smith

What was true for strippers in the classic musical Gypsy is often echoed by app developers: "You gotta have a gimmick." In order to stand out in the cluttered app economy (700,000 in Apple’s store alone) developers often try to build into apps at least one feature that makes unique and compelling use of the device’s technology. Popular Science has a good excuse to follow this idea: Its brand mission is to highlight new uses of technology. In this case, a modest interactive text on the major stages of human evolution is enhanced by camera and mapping technology that puts the reader’s face onto 3D renderings of Neanderthal heads.

The technology works well: You take a picture of yourself using the iPad camera, and your eyes and other distinguishing features get stretched onto each of the eight human-like stages of evolution. Each stage has interactive 3D models of faces, skulls and skeletons as well as text accompaniment explaining culture, tools, etc.

At $11.99 ($5.99 in a recent discount), the app asks a lot of users for delivering what amounts to a cool trick whose novelty wears in a minute or so. It is priced as a digital textbook without that level of depth or reference functionality. Editorially, the gimmick succeeds in engaging the user slightly more than the inherent interactivity of the design. But there is no richer follow-through on the idea, such as a second-person narrative of Neanderthal life that would further personalize the content. Conversely, PopSci might at least have foregrounded the 3D and mapping technology and explored how the trick itself is done.

At “free” or nominal 99-cent pricing these weaknesses would be forgivable. But a premium price raises the expectations bar above what the app provides.

Grade C+