In a rapidly expanding universe, it can be hard for casual stargazers to keep track of all those stars, planets and constellations in the night sky. Universe2go tackles this task with a clever augmented reality headset and smartphone app package that instantly turned us into aspiring astronomers when we tried it out for this review.
Universe2go looks a little like a virtual reality headset, but it actually uses mirrors and a top-loading compartment where you place your Android or iPhone screen-down to overlay a starmap and other images on your field of view. Using your phone's GPS and gyroscope, the app is able to know what part of the night sky you're looking at and project the same section of its starmap over the celestial bodies you can (or can't) see in real time.
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The app places a target in your field of view that allows you to "aim" your gaze at certain heavenly objects. Target a certain star, nebula or planet and a small pop-up window gives you fast facts on the object. "Lock on" to the most notable objects and constellations for a few seconds and you'll trigger one of over three hours worth of audio explanations on what you're looking at. A fun little extra is the system's ability to track the International Space Station and give you a heads up when it's passing above.
A handful of different viewing modes focus on stargazing for beginners, experts, the myths behinds constellations and celestial bodies, deep space, and there's even a quiz mode to challenge super star nerds. The app can also be used without the full augmented reality planetarium experience of the headset as a standalone starmap on your phone.
The headset menus and the audio guide are all operated through head movements that take some getting used to at first, but work pretty consistently once you have a good feel for it. It's important to go through the calibration steps for the best head-tracking experience.
After about ten minutes of playing around with the head controls I was able to comfortably switch in and out of modes, look around the sky and trigger pop-ups and audio clips with more info on what I was looking at.
The smartphone app interface and settings I found to be a little wonky and difficult to deal with in handheld mode, but that's probably reflective of the fact that it's primarily designed to be used with the headset. Most of you will need to download the "International" version of the app, as the standard version features audio clips in German only.
That said, setup of the whole system is remarkably easy. Foam spacers are included to give most phones a snug fit in the top compartment and I was able to easily use three different phones with the headset with no issue.
Even when a night sky isn't available for augmented reality stargazing, my daughter and I enjoyed taking turns faking it by pointing Universe2go at the ceiling and pretending that we have a glass roof. My daughter was engrossed for some time exploring the sky and I even found myself reaching for the headset to check out a few constellations from the couch during commercial breaks.
The Universe2go sky viewer retails for £69 or US$99 and can be ordered online. The app is available from the App Store and Google Play and the handheld star map can be used for free.
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