The Best Apps Want to Save Your Game and Your Life

Meet the winners of the Apple App Design Awards

Man using Butterfly iQ app on his neck
Butterfly Network Head of Product Matt de Jonge uses Butterfly iQ on himself.

App building is hard work. Using them can be hard work, too.

As I flipped shot after shot at a basketball hoop, missing most of them, an iPhone XS sat atop a tripod, calling out how many seconds it took for me to accept a pass and take the shot. Actually, it was HomeCourt (one of nine Apple App Design Award winners) calling out those stats, which it picked up by watching me through the iPhone’s rear camera.

Person shooting hoops with an iPhone in the foreground
Here was someone who could shoot. HomeCourt tracks the arc and if you make the basket.

Even though it felt like HomeCourt was berating me, I couldn’t help but admire its power and elegance. Like the seven other award winners I saw on a recent morning at Apple Park, HomeCourt takes advantage of Apple’s iPhone hardware and software in innovative, smart, and elegant ways, all in the name of unlocking everyone’s b-ball potential. Even mine.

Person dribbling a basketball while an iPad watches
Not the author practicing ball handling with HomeCourt’s help.

In the ball-handling training exercise, we propped an iPad Pro running HomeCourt against a water bottle and then I watched the screen and dribbled the ball, trying to either hit the green dots that appear onscreen with my hands or with the ball. I got a 67% which, I was told, is a beginner’s score.

Close up of the iPad tracking a player's dribbling skills
HomeCourt deftly combines your real world with graphics to track you and improve your game.

All the developers I met spoke with obvious pride about their creations, which ranged from the intense HomeCourt (free trial, $7.99-a-month subscription for the Pro version), which uses a combination of AI and and the iPhone's powerful A12 Bionic CPU to measure and guide almost all your basketball skills in real-time, to the playful Ordia, an unusual vertical platform game, to the potentially life-changing Butterfly iQ, a hand-held ultrasound device that plugs into your iPhone. Some developers have been building these apps for years; at least one jokingly told me they’d been in the design awards hunt for a decade.

Maybe Call It a Tricorder

Like most people, I tend to gravitate toward certain kinds of apps. I have productivity and work apps like Slack and Word, a small collection of games that I play incessantly, my social media apps (hey, Twitter and Instagram) and then a smaller collection of photography apps. I try out all kinds of apps, but I have never used one that connects to a medical device.

Man uses a medical device attached to his iPhone to see inside a volunteer's bladder
Matt de Jonge uses Butterfly iQ to see inside his friend’s over-full bladder.

I still haven’t, but did watch in awe as Butterfly iQ Head of Product Matt de Jonge used the small, black, hand-held ultrasound device, which looks a little like an electric beard trimmer, to scan his co-worker’s heart and bladder (which apparently was full just for the demonstration). There were two remarkable things here: First, the $2,000 hardware can, according to de Jonge (and the FDA which has given it a Class 2 Medical Device rating), do the work of a copier-sized $60,000 ultrasound device. Second, what it sees is instantly displayed on a user-friendly iOS app.

HDTV monitor showing Butterfly iQ's ultrasound-like screen
Butterfly iQ accomplishes a complex task with a surprisingly simple app.

Mobile ultrasound devices aren’t new, but they’re typically designed to scan a single body area and usually are attached to a larger device. Butterfly iQ even scans differently, swapping piezoelectric crystal for 9,000 tiny “drums” etched into a semiconductor that, like tiny speakers, send sound waves into the body, which the handheld device then reads (for speed and intensity of return) to build an image.

De Jonge said they miniaturized the ultrasound machine and moved it into a custom integrated circuit. “It’s the first heir to the stethoscope,” he claims.

iPad showing remote camera view of de Jonge using the Butterfly iQ device
An iPad-based telemedicine ultrasound checkup with Butterfly iQ.

The images, which I saw in real-time on an iPhone XS, probably make more sense to a trained professional, but I was impressed with how de Jonge could use gestures and taps to capture and record video and adjust the image, including crucial ultrasound attributes like “gain.” For the bladder, de Jonge read the liquid content and quickly built a blue, 3D model of the organ.

Butterfly iQ also supports telemedicine visits. I watched as an on-screen doctor used augmented reality to help guide de Jonge in the proper placement of the scanner on his chest. They were checking lung “wetness,” apparently an indicator of heart failure (which de Jonge does not have).

When I asked de Jonge if he envisioned expectant parents eventually using a similar – if cheaper – version of the devices for home-based prenatal checkups, he told me it might work in high-risk pregnancy situations where there’s a necessity for frequency scans. However, he added, “it’s not a toy. [I] don’t imagine we’ll be selling baby selfie devices, though I can imagine people would want them.”

New Platforms

Most of the app developers I spoke to were still digesting some of the platform changes announced during this week’s Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference.

As I watched developer brothers Nathan and Ben Hamey demonstrate Moleskine Flow (Free with a $30-a-year subscription), a sketching and note taking app from Moleskine’s digital studio, on an iPad Pro, one Hamey noted that it was running on the new iOS 13. I quickly asked, “You mean iPadOS, right?” Nathan Hamey laughed, “I gotta get used to that one now.” Days before, Apple introduced iPadOS, which is still built on iOS 13, but adds a variety of tablet-specific features.

A man using Apple Pencil to sketch on an iPad Pro
Developer Nathan Hamey sketches on Moleskine Flow.

Flow, which has a deep collection of customizable tools and a continuously scrolling canvas, will benefit from a number of the new OS updates; in particular, the new Apple Pencil latency. Ben Hamey said he hadn’t expected the drop from 20 ms down to 9ms. That response time promises to make sketching and writing on the tablet even more like putting a real pen to paper.

The Moleskine Flow team is also excited about iPadOS’s ability to run multiple instances of the same app and run them side by side. Ben Hamey explained that users could use one document as a reference image while drawing on the other side.

Man standing up and talking to a group of reporters
Moleskine Flow developer Ben Hamey explains how Flow will use iPadOS’s new features.

By the end of the year, Moleskine Flow will include collaboration tools so multiple people can work on the same sketch at once.

If there was a theme among the apps that Apple selected for recognition, it was about taking complex tasks and simplifying them through smart interfaces and raw Machine Language power. Pixelmator Photo ($4.99), for instance, takes difficult image editing routines, like white balance, filter presets, and even object removal and turns them into a series of swipes and taps, often hiding dozens of tiny adjustments.

Pixelmator Photo app on iPad Pro
Pixelmator Photo offers simple tools for complex image-editing tasks.

Unlike the Moleskin team, Pixelmator Photo’s developers are focused less on iPadOS updates and more on Project Catalyst, which brings iPad apps to the Mac. This, in combination with macOS Catalina’s new Sidecar feature, which lets you extend the screen from the Mac to an iPad and lets users control the app with an Apple Pencil (on the iPad), could be a game changer for this class of image-editing apps.

A Range of Games

Asphalt 9: Legends racing game on iPhone
Asphalt 9: Legends.  Apple

I got a little starry-eyed meeting Ben PerLee, the unassuming Gameloft PR exec. His company makes my favorite mobile game franchise, Asphalt, a popular and addictive racing game. Apple recognized the newest version Asphalt 9: Legends. I’ve been playing it for months and am, naturally, already a fan. The attention to detail and level of car-racing physics rivals what you’d find on a console game. That quality is, PerLee told me, the result of a large, 89-person development team, better programming, and the use of Gameloft’s own game engine, Jet, which is optimized for Apple’s Metal.

One of the innovations they were recognized for is touchdrive, which is the equivalent of self-driving virtual race cars, with the game handling most steering duties so players can focus on flips, turns and nitro-collecting takedowns. I admitted to PerLee that I turned this feature off as soon as I started playing Asphalt 9: Legends. I like to drive.

Because these are design awards, Apple has a habit of recognizing abstract games like the Escher-influenced Monument Valley.

This year, Apple selected The Gardens Between, Ordia, and Thumper.

The Gardens in Between on an iPhone
The Gardens in Between. Apple 

Stylistically and thematically, The Gardens Between ($4.99) might be the most traditional game. It’s a tale of two best friends who run away from home and right into a storm that transports them to a magical land heavy with symbolism about the challenges the pair will face in real life as they transition from childhood to teenagers and beyond. The Voxel Agents developers Matt Clark and Simon Joslin explained that they drew from their own 1980s and '90s childhoods to develop the game’s themes and imagery. Its unique look comes from Art Director Jonathan Swanson who, according to the team, taught himself 3D and shader modeling.

While the game developers agree The Gardens Between appears a perfect fit for augmented reality exploration – they can imagine a player placing a virtual garden on a real table and walking around it – they don’t yet have a timeline for integrating Apple’s augmented reality development kit (ARKit).

Ordia on an iPhone held in a person's hands

Ordia ($3.99), on the other hand, is a deceptively simply, vertically-oriented platform game that can, by design, be played with a single finger. The goal is simply to keep moving up. But, as developer Mike Holland told me, there’s a lot of complexity built into the details of the game. Color is used throughout to indicate functionality and the interactivity goes right down to every blade of grass.

Thumper on an iPhone

Thumper ($4.99) stands out as the least reality-based game of the lot. It features a metallic beetle racing along a track as every swipe, bump, turn and crash creates a never-ending techno-beat soundtrack. I’ve played this game and found it addictive and surprisingly difficult. I asked developer Brian Gibson what inspired the game’s unusual design and play. Gibson said it started with this idea of how musicians build music using step sequences, layering things together in a modular way. Basically, he wanted to create a visual metaphor for that, but as a fast-paced, almost chaotic game. “I wanted weirder things. I wanted a mood. Music is pure feeling, something you can’t visualize. It’s pure mood.”