Monday, December 15, 2014
The New "Warbler Guide" App Premieres. . . Here's An Interview With The Authors
Looking for an excellent new app for your smart phone?
It is here: As a complement to The Warbler Guide paperback, The Warbler Guide App is available at the iTunes Store and Google Play.
In the following interview, authors of the book and app — Tom Whittle and Scott Stephenson — answered some of my questions about their new app:
Why do an app when you have a book?
The Warbler Guide was an exciting project for us, and it incorporates a number of new features and tools such as Quick Finders, Comparison Species, and (for the first time) a complete system for analyzing and learning bird sounds. But there are a few things an App can do that a book can’t.
First, it can go in your pocket! Our app works on iPhone and iPad, and that means you can bring it out into the field. With that in mind, the app is also more focused on helping actively identify a bird you are seeing.
Secondly, an app can respond to the user and sort information in ways a book can’t. By using dynamic, real time filters, the Warbler Guide App let’s you quickly narrow down your selection by location, visual characteristics and sound. So if you’re seeing a bird in the Northeast with a yellow head that’s singing a buzzy song, you can quickly enter that in the app and see what choices that leaves. It’s a very rapid mode of identification.
Third, you can play sounds! A book falls short there, and being able to just tap and compare songs in the app will prove to be not only a useful study guide, but and effective way to quickly compare and narrow down bird sounds in the real world.
Finally, our app includes 3D models that let the user position and compare the bird exactly as they see it in the field. This is a new and powerful tool that is only possible with computers.
Are there parts of the book you left out?
The app is not the book, and visa versa. We didn’t want to just create an electronic version of the Warbler Guide – instead we built the app from the ground up as a working tool for field identification. As such, some of the information in the warbler guide isn’t in the app, although the entire species accounts and comparisons are included. We basically streamlined the app to be what we felt was the best possible tool for birding.
What's different from the book?
As we mentioned, there isn’t as much secondary information, such as taxonomy, measurements, etc. We also don’t include the six very rare vagrant warblers that are in the guide, and of course we don’t have all the sections explaining what to look for and how to learn songs. The app is more of a field tool, and the book is more of a study guide, and in that way they complement each other well.
Which process did you enjoy more or was more difficult? Writing the book or developing the app?
Those are two very different things! The book was exciting to develop, and it was gratifying to be able to create new systems and tools that we feel makes learning warblers much easier.
The app, on the other hand, was more about creating an elegant, useful field tool that took all the information in the guide and made it quickly accessible and fast-to-use in the field. That was an exciting process, too, and challenging in an aesthetic, workflow and design sense.
Do you need to have the book in order to “get” the app or find it useful?
Not at all – the app stands alone, and is a great tool for the field. But if you want to sit down and do a little more studying, then the book is great to have, too. There’s nothing to replace the experience of reading a real book, and we didn’t try to do that with the app. So we recommend having both!
The app incorporates 3D models, sounds, and search functions in new ways. Let’s start with the 3D models – why was it so important to you to include 3D images? What was the process involved in making them?
The 3D models are something we’ve been thinking about for several years now, and we’re so excited to be able to present them in the app. Traditionally, an illustrator has to decide which viewing angles of a bird to include in book, since space is limited. But with 3D models, we can literally show every possible angle of a bird.
We created the models using professional modeling software, and overlaid photographs and applied various graphic design techniques to create a realistic “skin”. That along with a little extra magic from the very talented artists we worked with for these images, and we were able to put together what we think is a lifelike and very functional model.
It’s been amazing to see these things in action in the app, and we feel it’s a step forward to give the user the ability to exactly match their view of a bird in the field.
Also, we’re used to seeing bird songs in apps, but The Warbler Guide takes this to a new level, allowing users to play back at different speeds and to look at sonograms. Can you take us through this?
Yes – the way we treat songs is another really critical innovation in the app. Teaching songs through books has always had limited effectiveness, but with an app we’re able to give the user songs they can play instantly, and compare side-by-side with other similar songs. Just the speed and seamless experience of this process should make studying songs much less cumbersome than in the past.
The sonograms are visualizations of sound, and they give us a way to describe and share specific aspects of a song. Having sound without sonograms would be like having a bird guide without illustrations! This, combined with the new descriptive vocabulary of the Warbler Guide, give us a method of teaching that is truly effective.
And the ½ speed playback is part of that, too…playing the song at half speed without the usual pitch distortion that accompanies it (think Alvin and the Chipmunks) lets a birder really hear all the parts of a song. Later, when you hear the song at normal speed, those little details become more apparent, and make it easier to describe and identify a bird’s sound. By carefully studying the structure of a song, which can be greatly aided by listening to it at a slower speed, the user will become much better at hearing that song, or even a call’s, structure in the field.
The search and filter functions are really neat and highly visual. Why did you decide to go in such a different way when it comes to searches and filters?
Many bird apps have some sort of filtering, but none of them use our visually intuitive system. When you’re looking at a bird and trying to quickly match it to an image, it doesn’t help to have a lot of verbal description to get between you and the bird. Birding is, after all, a visual and auditory experience first and foremost – not a verbal one – so why introduce that layer of words that just slows down the connection? By creating truly visual filters we think the user will have a faster and easier filtering experience.
One of the things that is really distinctive about The Warbler Guide is the species comparison photos and information. How do you cover this material in the app?
The comparisons are very important. First of all, people generally learn birds by comparison: for example, this bird is larger than that one, or this one is more yellow. Secondly, in a traditional guide the only way to be sure that the illustration you’re looking at is the right one is by knowing all the other birds in the book! Otherwise how can you be sure that there’s nothing similar? We call these guides “Bird Dictionaries”, and trying to teach someone birds with a traditional field guide is a lot like trying to teach someone English by handing them a dictionary.
So we took a different approach with the Warbler Guide, and curated each species with all its look-alikes. That way, you can easily see all the birds that might be mistaken for each other, and then quickly and confidently ID your bird.
The app continues this approach – if the user selects a bird, then all the similar birds are presented on the species account page. Not only that, but if you then select one of those comparisons, it’s displayed side-by-side with your initial choice, and can be viewed from any angle and in 3D as well. Tapping the birds also brings up a list of important difference between the two – again, creating a confident, rapid ID process without having to know all the birds of the US!
It’s important to note that the comparisons also apply to the warbler songs. You can listen to each species’ song types and immediately see and hear any possible confusion species, along with our notes on what to listen for to help tell them apart.
What’s next for you? A lot of people are hoping you’ll write a similar book for another family. Any plans to do this?
We will certainly be focusing on other types of birds, and are currently working with our publisher, Princeton University Press, to do that. But the form of our next work may not be of one family, like sparrows.
We have had lots of feedback on our approach to understanding and learning vocalizations and expanding this to other species groups is another direction we’re very interested in.
How will people in the field find app features helpful?
This app is built from the ground up specifically for use in the field. We leveraged all the power of a portable device to create a new and effective tool for identifying a bird easily, quickly and with confidence as it’s being seen.
The visual and audible filters are extremely effective at cutting down the number of species to just a few birds in moments. The 3D view allows the user to position a model in the exact same viewing angle of a bird as they are seeing at the moment. And the sound-playing aspects of the app help quickly play and compare songs to rapidly match songs heard while birding. So we hope all those tools will help birders have a more rewarding and educational experience.
Will the app be applicable throughout the USA?
Yes – it covers all the warblers of the US, excluding a few rare vagrants like Slate-throated Redstart. It is also filterable by region, so if you are in the Northwest US, you can select that area to show just the birds that are likely there.
Will a place for people to log their warbler sightings be present?
We defer to apps like BirdLog for that functionality. The Warbler Guide App is really focused on its primary mission, which is to rapidly find and compare warbler species.
Will birders be able to track their sightings by date from one year to the next?
Again, we think apps like BirdLog and eBird already handle this brilliantly, so we avoided trying to repeat that functionality.
Does the app need to be connected to the internet to be effective?
No. One of the virtues of this app is that it’s stand-alone, so if you’re in some remote area without internet service, it still functions perfectly.