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27 November 2011

Vernier Video Physics for the iPad 2: A Winner

For Thanksgiving, my family headed to a very nice cottage in West Virginia.  It had a number of wonderful amenities, not including internet, television, or cell phone service.  That was okay by me, because I spent several days grading exams and writing comments.  It’s amazing how much more focused I can be when I don’t have the option to check my email real quick, or to just see what the score of the game is.  It’s also amazing how much more boring it is to grade papers without any sort of electronic distraction.  Guh.

My eight year old occupied himself for hour after hour with a hand-held Pokemon video game.  In the rare moments when he tired briefly of having Waylord fight Trogdor (or whatever), he explored this loaner iPad 2 that I got from my school’s library.

For those who have followed Jacobs Physics for a while, you might remember that a year and a half ago my school provided me with an iPad, for use in physics class, while broadcasting football and baseball, and at debate tournaments.  My summaries of the iPad’s usefulness can be found here and here.  

Now, before you say “oh, my school could never afford that” or “what an extravagant place you teach at, Greg!”  think about the actual cost-benefit analysis.  I don’t use a smartboard – I tried it for a year, and found out that I never used any features that couldn’t be done with a dumbboard.*  I’ve found the iPad to be worth far more than the smartboard; yet, the iPad generally costs less than half a smartboard.   If your school can afford computers and smartboards, it can afford an iPad for the physics department.  The question becomes, is such a purchase worthwhile?

* A “dumbboard,” as I learned over the summer, refers to a computer projector shining directly onto a whiteboard.  Annotations to the screen can be done with dry-erase marker. 

Now that the iPad 2 includes a video and still camera, the answer is unequivocally “yes.”  Our department has had a high-quality digital camera for years.  When I want to take a picture of an experimental setup, I walk down the hall to get the camera.  I take the camera out of the bag, remove the lens cap, take the picture**, remove the USB cord, replace the USB cord and remove the correct USB cord, insert card into the card reader, click a mouse a few times, and voila – there’s the picture.  Finally.

**often the shutter won’t press without the magic incantation that goes, “Why the #$@@ won’t the dang picture take?  Is it on autofocus or something?”

With the iPad 2, the picture isn’t nearly as high resolution.  However, the picture taking process is reduced to (1) press button, (2) email picture.  That capability by itself might be worth the price of the iPad 2.  Think of all the measurements that can be made live, in class, with instant photography!***  And, portable skype is nothing to sneeze at.  I can show an equation during a live video chat; I can even show a live experiment to a remote viewer.  Not that I’ve done that yet, but if you would like to listen in to my honors or research class via skype, just let me know.

*** Of course, those of you who were smart enough to purchase smartphones have probably been doing this for years.  I still have a landline, and an office phone.  Sorry.

And with the Vernier video physics app, the revolution is complete.  Vernier’s logger pro software has always allowed easy frame-by-frame video analysis on the computer.  But the time to upload video and then to convert it to a usable format has always been an annoying barrier to using this feature except for research purposes.  On the iPad 2, the process is simple and quick.  The video collection can be done within the Vernier app itself – no saving and importing videos unless you want to.  The interface is easy to use and understand.  Within a few minutes, you can have position- and velocity- time graphs for any captured motion.

As a testament to this app’s ease of use, I produced a useful video and graph within minutes of first opening the app, without reading any sort of instruction manual.  Then, I showed my 8 year old how it worked.  He spent a couple hours taking and analyzing videos, proudly showing his grandmother that the dropped ball was going 600 cm/s, but the dog’s nose only went 150 cm/s.  I approve.

For $2.99, I can't imagine a more useful physics app.  Now, Vernier, your challenge is to make all your probes work wirelessly with an iPad version of logger pro.  Go for it.


  1. Have you heard or used Splashtop? It's an app that allows you to control your computer remotely using your ipad, which would allow you to use your "dumbboard" and control it from anywhere in the room, or perhaps better yet, allow your students to control it from their seats. I don't have an ipad, but a friend of mine has and between Splashtop, your Vernier app, and the astronomy app that allows you to hold the ipad up at the sky and identify whatever you're looking for, I could see how it would be a very valuable classroom tool.

  2. If you haven't seen Vernier's latest effort to expand its usage here's an article on the new Connected Science System.

    Its a data sharing application compatible with Iphone, Ipad, and Android tablets. You still need an interface and sensors to collect the data, but, students can do all the analysis, curve fitting and etc. on their phone or tablet once the data is collected and shared.
    This might work better than 4 students crowding around one computer trying to see what quarter inch button little Johnny just pressed to fit that line.

    I think this could work well with quantitative demos too. I hope to be using it first week.