Sun Seeker – How to use the new azimuth calibration feature

I’ve just submitted an update to Sun Seeker for iOS – v4.3.

This update contains an experimental feature which addresses one of the most difficult aspects of using the device’s compass to obtain an accurate heading, when using the augmented reality 3D view to see the solar path. This article seeks to explain what this feature is about, and how best to use it.

Note that the Android version of Sun Seeker does not yet have this feature. I will be relying on feedback from iOS users before deciding whether to implement it in the Android version.

In the last major release (v4.2), I introduced the ability to toggle between Compass+Gyroscope mode and Gyroscope-only mode. This was already a big leap forward, because the gyroscope-only mode allows users to manually adjust the 3D View heading simply by dragging it manually.

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The gyroscope-only mode allows you to set the heading manually, and the device then holds your setting relative to the gyroscope. Although there is likely to be a slow drifting of the gyroscope-only data, provided that you were able to set the heading accurately, this will work well for short periods of time – more than likely long enough to get all the information you need from the app.

Of course this all depends on you being able to set the heading accurately yourself. If the sun is out, then this is very easy – just line up the sun icon in the camera view with the actual position of the sun! Easy. 🙂

But what if the sun isn’t out? Well this is where the new “Azimuth Finder” feature comes in. Tap on the settings (gear) icon in the 3D View, and you will see two new options at the bottom of the list of settings.

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  • Show Reference Azimuth – If you have already selected a location, use this option to to toggle the display of an azimuth line corresponding to the selected location.
  • Set Reference Location – Tap this to open the “Azimuth Finder” view, and select a location or landmark within your line of sight, to use for your reference azimuth.

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All you have to do in this view is to use the map to browse to a landmark or location that is visible from where you are now. It must be somewhere that you can identify when looking later through the 3D camera overlay view. When you have found a suitable location, just tap and hold to drop a marker. The app will use geocoding to assign a name or address to the location, and calculate it’s azimuth from the current device location.

In this particular example, I am (just) able to see the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from here, despite the rain and low cloud, so that makes a good landmark to use.

Then, as soon as you tap “Done“, you are returned to the 3D View, and there is now a new line showing the azimuth of the selected location. Note that you will only see this line if you are already looking in approximately the right direction! Otherwise you may need to pan around until you bring it into view.

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You may be able to make out the Sydney Harbour Bridge in this screenshot – just to the right of the chimney, directly below the centre cursor.

As this 3D View is already in gyroscope-only mode, all I needed to do next was to manually drag the white azimuth line to the actual location of the bridge – in this case four degrees to the right. And, voila, we now have a very well-calibrated heading!

Note that if you leave this for a while it may drift off again little by little, due to gyroscope drift. In that case, simply repeat the same calibration procedure.

Once you’ve selected a particular landmark for calibration, it is remembered (and the heading automatically adjusts itself if you change location yourself), so you can just switch the reference azimuth line on or off via the settings icon. And at any time you can choose a different reference location too, as you will obviously need to do if you move to a new location from which the original landmark is not visible.

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Sun Seeker Sizzles!

The Sun Seeker app has continued to be enhanced and honed in a series of updates, the most recent being v2.8, which includes a modernised interface – yep, those are indeed flat button faces. 😉

Sun Seeker v2.8 compass screen
Sun Seeker v2.8 Compass Screen

These updates seem to have attracted a bit of positive attention resulting in several new blog reviews, culminating in the following fabulous review from top-notch reviewer John Martellaro (@jmartellaro) of The Mac Observer. This is a must-read review, not just because it is positively glowing, but also because John saw fit to include my detailed answers to his probing questions, including some inside information on how the app works, and especially importantly on how to ensure optimum compass calibration of your device.

Just to show a little more of the app here, my own favorite feature update is the ability to select date and time on the map view via a scroller.

Sun Seeker Map View

 

Sun Seeker Test Shots

Here are a couple of images from Sun Seeker put together (unsolicited) by a generous and enthusiastic New York based photographer/cinematographer – Hal Hansen.

He’s currently revamping his website and I’ll provide a link to it here when it’s ready. Thanks Hal!

I love the way he’s featured an iconic yellow cab which is a New York signature. Did anyone notice that it’s not actually the same cab in each shot? That’s clever photography! 😉

Sun Seeker Update v1.5

As part of a series of planned updates for the Sun Seeker augmented reality iPhone app, the latest update v1.5 has just been approved by Apple.

For a video demo of Sun Seeker see this earlier blog post.

The main changes for v1.5 are:

  • Enhanced performance for smoother compass dial rotation
  • Added new table of annual rise and set times
  • Added new table of sun’s daily azimuth and elevation
  • Added tap action to rise/set label to see local times instead of intervals
  • Better handling of disabled Location Services
  • More efficient use of GPS – now only used briefly on startup
  • Fixed some minor bugs and issues with date changes

[Note – v1.5.1 update has been submitted to fix OS3.0 backward compatibility and missing sunset times for some locations west of GMT.]

Following is a more detailed description of some of these items.

1. Enhanced Compass Dial Rotation

The compass dial in Sun Seeker includes text which retains its orientation relative to the device regardless of the compass rotation, and this means that at least part of the image needs to be re-rendered for each incremental rotation of that dial as the compass rotates. Previously the whole image was being redrawn each time, and that performance hit meant that the dial motion was quite jerky when it needed to make large rotational changes. The new implementation involves much less redrawing, and hence allows the compass to be much more responsive.

2. New Tables

The table of rise and set times spans the entire year, and hence allows you to look up rise and set times for any given date.

The table of the solar path lists the sun’s azimuth and elevation at 15 minutes intervals throughout the currently selected day.

3. Tap action to see rise/set time instead of intervals

This was added simply for clarity. Tapping on the rise/set labels on the compass screen toggles the display between showing the rise and set time in local time versus showing time duration between now and the rise and set times.

4. Better handling of Location Services status

A problem to date has been if the user has switched off the device Location Services or (perhaps accidentally) disabled them for this particular app. In these cases the app can only use its last acquired location data, and in this case the app shows data which is correct for that old location, but incorrect for the user’s current location.

This issue has been the biggest generator of email support requests to date, but I now expect that this will lessen considerably, because I have implemented clear warning messages which pop-up whenever location services are disabled, each time that the app starts up or resumes from background.

5. More efficient use of GPS

Previous versions of the app left GPS on continuously while the app was active (although off when inactive or in background), and this presented the app with ongoing positional updates while it was open. But for the sake of efficient use of GPS, it seemed unnecessary to leave it on once the location had been determined to a reasonable accuracy, so GPS is now only on as long as location has not been found to reasonable accuracy. However an important point here is that the app should re-query its location not only every time it starts up, but also whenever it resumes from background. The reason for this of course is that the device may have changed location while it was in background – for example it may resume from background after the user has traveled somewhere by air!

6. Future Updates

By far the most common request from users has been to allow selection of other cities/locations rather than just the current current, and this is the next major feature planned. But please note that it is not a trivial update! A particular difficulty here is in ensuring that the local times reported for other locations respect the correct timezones and daylight savings rules for those locations throughout the year. However, I do have a solution planned, and hope to be able to do this within a reasonable timeframe.

The next most common request has been for an Android version. Due to the particularly technical nature of the app, and the fact that I personally have no grounding in Android development, this is a much more difficult proposition. However I have been looking to outsource it. I apologise to those who have been waiting impatiently, and I can assure you that these plans are progressing.

In the meantime, I hope you continue to enjoy the app!

Sun Seeker Lite

I’m pleased to announce the arrival of Sun Seeker Lite – a free version of Sun Seeker (finalist in the 2009 Best App Ever awards), albeit without the augmented reality view!

After my recent experiments and experiences with in-app purchase, I’m now putting more effort into the Lite version concept. Although it requires creating a whole new app, in practice it is simpler and safer than the in-app purchase method, for a range of reasons. In fact I have already added an Oz Weather Lite version of the full Oz Weather app, and Sun Seeker Lite is my second Lite app.

That is not to say that the decision of exactly what features to put into a Lite version is an easy one. In this case I removed all augmented reality features, which is of course the big selling point of the full app, but on the other hand I’m pleased enough with the look and feel of the main screen’s flat compass view, that I think it will create the right impression for users, and persuade them that the quality is good enough to warrant purchasing the full app.

Despite the fact that it does omit the augmented reality view, the flat compass view in the Lite app can still be very useful in many situations. Please give it a go, and pass on the word to others if you like it, or perhaps even (gasp!) leave a positive review. 😉

Sun Seeker is Finalist in 2009 Best AR App Award

I have a vague memory of Sun Seeker having been nominated for something at some point… but then obviously forgot all about it. But today I received an email telling me it is a finalist in the “2009 Best App Ever Awards” in the category of Best Augmented Reality App.

I’m guessing that it wouldn’t have reached this stage without some people having decided that it was a worthy app, so this much is gratifying in itself. But if you have any inkling at all to offer some support for the public vote, please feel free to use the following link to place a vote, and augment the app’s chances against some of the other very high profile contenders. 🙂

Vote for
Sun Seeker: 3D Augmented Reality Vi…
in
Best Augmented Reality App

This is especially pleasing to me because I have found that most people (at least initially) don’t seem to understand what the app is useful for. But when they do finally get it, the response is of course much more enthusiastic.

BTW – I’m still intending to do much more with AR, and hope to be able to report on my progress later.

Sun Seeker – What is it Good For?

There have been quite a few news and blog mentions of Sun Seeker since it’s release (described in this previous post), which has created some good interest in it, and yes, some good app sales too. But a common reaction of press reviewers seems to be to question what you would use it for. I have to say, frankly, that I am a little surprised. How could you not immediately understand how useful this app really is?!

SunSeeker for Real Estate

But then it dawned on me (whoops, no pun intended!). We are not all born the same. Some of us do seem to have that extra geek gene, which means that some things which seem really obvious to us are pretty much obscure to others. And vice-versa of course, as I know all too well, often to my own detriment. 😉

Thankfully, however, some of those who bought the app do already “get it”, and a few kind souls have left some great comments explaining exactly how they find it useful – and some of these are in ways that I had not even imagined myself. As these comments are spread around different countries’ app stores, I thought it might help to list a few of them here. I have added highlighting to various words and phrases to emphasize the types of usage people are using it for.

I bought this app to track the suns position on the cockpit window during my trips as an airline pilot, this app works better than I had hoped. I now use this app as a situational awareness tool, keeping track of possible solar glare on final approaches to particular runways. It works awsome in the virtual 3d view because of the slaved compass I can find the suns relative position with reference to any runway. This is really a great app. (Lwm5 – USA)

Fantastic – shows the true utility of augmented reality apps. As an architect I have been doing solar analysis of sites by printing solar charts, taking pictures and noting bearings & altitue of horizon (trees mnts structures etc) – then combining info in Photoshop. With this app it’s as easy as pointing the camera to get a sense of the solar access of a site at different times of day / year. (smh_iTunes – USA)

I work in the Solar industry and this works exceptionally well for aligning solar arrays and showing customers the path of the sun. GREAT app 🙂 (Clear James – Australia)

The perfect app for DOP’s Gaffers and anyone that needs to know where the sun path will be and where you will lose the sun behind a building etc. The augmented reality is flawless and helps anyone plan out a photo/film shoot to the hour. A steal at this price. (Metromadman – Australia)

It might also be worth noting that, currently, the best sales of this app are being made in… Japan. How fitting, given that it is sometimes know as the land of the rising sun!

Currently Sun Seeker is #6 in paid apps in the Navigation category, there. I’m guessing that this might have something to do with the fact that Japanese are known for being early and enthusiastic adopters of new technology. This helps in two ways – firstly because there might be a strong uptake of the latest 3GS iPhone model (required for this app), and secondly because the area of augmented reality is so new to the consumer space, and offers exciting new ways of using the technology, which may not be immediately obvious to those more reluctant to embrace unfamiliar technology.

Now why can’t Westerners be more like the Japanese?

So until next time – Konichiwa! 🙂