A pair of Seattle-area software developers are getting some much-deserved recognition for their astronomy app. Chris Laurel and Nick Risinger, founders of Fifth Star Labs, recently received a 2014 Apple Design Award for their gorgeous iOS app Sky Guide.
Laurel is a software developer whose titles include Celestia, an open-source application for astronomical visualization. He has consulted with NASA and the European Space Agency. Risinger is a renowned astrophotographer and designer perhaps best known for his panoramic photo survey of the Milky Way that consists of more than 37,000 individual images. Laurel tells Seattle Astronomy that the idea for Sky Guide germinated as a way to allow people to view Risinger’s imagery.
The first version of Sky Guide came out a little over a year ago, in May 2013, and Laurel says they’ve had the good fortune to be selling well right from the start.
“We have a good app, but it also takes some luck to get the exposure that you need to sell enough to keep yourself employed,” he says. A lot of the luck came in the form of support from Apple, which featured Sky Guide on the app store not long after it launched.
“If you make something that the platform owners like, then they want to feature you because it shows off their devices and software,” Laurel notes of the support from Apple. Soon Sky Guide was featured as the Starbucks app of the week.
“That’s a free download; we don’t get money, but it gets you a lot of people looking at the app,” Laurel says, and that created some buzz. “Once you get enough users using it, then they tell their friends, so you have this sort of organic thing going.”
Laurel says the Apple Design Award came as something of a surprise, but says they’re deeply honored by the recognition from the company. Reviews have been great; Sky Guide was featured as one of the hot products for 2014 in the January issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.
Laurel, who is vice president for activities for the Seattle Astronomical Society, says he and Risinger are gratified at the interest the amateur astronomy community has shown in Sky Guide, but notes that this wasn’t their target customer group.
“We were going for a broader audience,” he says, explaining that Sky Guide doesn’t have features such as telescope controls that are offered by other astronomy apps. “We’re going for an audience of anyone who might look up in the night sky and say, ‘What’s that star?'”
We love Sky Guide for its gorgeous look and for its great depth. In addition to Risinger’s superb photography, the app features music and sounds by Mat Jarvis and a wealth of information about bright stars (by James B. Kaler) and about constellation mythology (by Ian Ridpath.) A cool filter feature lets the user see objects as they would appear in various wavelengths, including microwave, infrared, h-alpha, and x-ray.
The Apple Design Award is well-deserved! Sky Guide is available for iPhone and iPad for $1.99. Check it out!