Converting a multimedia-centric site into an app is challenging enough, but what happens when you want to roll that app out on multiple platforms? Here's what the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) learned when it took just that approach for a major Anzac Day project.
The ABC originally built its Gallipoli The First Day site as an educational resource back in 2009. To coincide with the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC campaign at Gallipoli, it has been redeveloped as an app for Android tablets, iPads and Windows.
The app lets you move around a 3D map space and experience the battle from the perspectives of both Australian and Turkish troops, with audio insights from historians and experts and narration from Hugo Weaving. While the original site is still being maintained, taking advantage of the new options available on tablets was a major incentive to rework the project, developer Sam Doust told Lifehacker.
"The usability and the flow was quite different," he said, noting that using touch gestures for navigation changed the way that individuals could experience the content. "In 2009, Flash had just got itself a Z-axis but there was no touch or gesture."
The challenge of trying to build a multi-platform app was lessened because the core content had been created. "Just being able to revisit something that had already been made, that's a luxury," Doust said. "You've got a lot of raw materials."
The project was worked on from August 2014 to January 2015, with a core team of four augmented with various development experts and consistent assistance from Soap Creative, which handled much of the development work.
One crucial early decision was to focus on tablets rather than trying to build for mobile phones — a consequence of wanting to ensure that content and navigation tools could effectively be displayed. "The interface won't work on a small screen," Doust noted, though phone users can still view much of the content via the web site, which is designed to meet accessibility standards.
The other major decision that made building across multiple platforms was the decision to use the Unity game engine to build the app. That meant that most of the development could take place on a single platform, with minor tweaks to reflect interface differences.
"Getting to some of the niggly nuisances was annoying, but because we made an instant decision to develop in Unity, the portability is high to start with," Doust said. "We essentially built it in Unity and used cloud-based spreadsheets to hold all the required data in an editable format."
There was one unexpected complication. "There was a bit of pain because Unity 5 came out at the same time we published, so we had to change some things," Doust said. "But on the whole it was good. Unity's a great workflow. It's quite a safe approach — we had some basic rules and we could offset any major accessibility problems."
One design choice that caused some minor angst was the size of the app, which is around 740MB. That's largely because the video content is embedded within the app itself, rather than being streamed in externally.
"It's interesting talking to the stores about size — every other app I've published has been under 100MB," Doust said. But there was a more important issue: "It's more of a concern to need connectivity to stream every element. You could treat this more like a book."
While pleased with the final product, Doust can still see potential for expansion. "Having now done a full Unity app, we're thinking about virtual reality," he said. "Touch is really just the beginning. It will be amazing to see HoloLens in about three years' time. VR has huge potential for this kind of storytelling."