Trending: The Galaxy S10, $2,000 Galaxy Fold, and everything else Samsung announced today
working (1)
The Sky Guide team: Software developer Chris Laurel, left, and photographer/designer Nick Risinger.

Don’t worry, amateur astronomers, you won’t be holding your wrist above your head to locate constellations. The team behind the popular Sky Guide smartphone app has developed a companion Apple Watch app that demonstrates how the new Apple wearable can complement, not duplicate, the experience on an iPhone.


Developed by Seattle-based Fifth Star Labs, the Sky Guide app for Apple Watch showcases the key capabilities of WatchKit, the platform for third-party apps on Apple’s new wearable device. It also shows why third-party developers would spend time making apps for the unproven Apple device, despite the fact that Apple Watch apps won’t yet generate revenue for them, at least not directly.

The Sky Guide app, making its debut this week, leverages three core Apple Watch features: a “glance” that shows users the most interesting activity or constellation in the sky when they swipe up; notifications that proactively alert users to key events like eclipses and meteor showers; and a core app that provides a calendar of upcoming astronomical events.

Sky Guide for Apple Watch also personalizes the experience for each user — sending International Space Station alerts only to people whose location would allow them to see an active flyover, for example. (Apple Watch users can even use the app to send tweets to astronauts on the ISS, but only if the Space Station is overhead for the user.)

Another example: The Apple Watch app precisely tailors its display of the phase of the moon depending on the user’s location.

This is part of a wave of new apps being announced and released this week in advance of the Apple Watch debut on Friday.

“It’s all about having this personal device with timely notifications, interactions, and essential information that’s quickly available,” said Nick Risinger, a photographer and designer who founded Fifth Star Labs with software developer Chris Laurel. “If you want to know what’s good right now, you don’t want to have to bust out your phone. This is just another way of getting pertinent information immediately.”

Sky Guide for Apple Watch will be free, but it requires the user to have installed the $1.99 Sky Guide app for iPhone. The Apple Watch app can be used without pulling out the smartphone app: the core glance, notification and events calendar features are on the watch. But if users want to explore the sky in detail, they have the option pull out their phones, and the Apple Watch version of Sky Guide will make a handoff to the smartphone app for a seamless experience.

In that way, the Apple Watch enhances the iPhone experience. That helps to explain why Fifth Star decided to bet on the Apple Watch, despite the fact that — for now, at least — it won’t generate revenue on its own for the company. (Apple Watch apps are all free to users at launch.)

“It’s a distinguishing feature, and we’re always looking for those things to make Sky Guide stand out,” Laurel explained. Previously, for example, Fifth Star has extended Sky Guide with a “Today” widget on iOS 8. The company was also quick to adopt the minimalist UI style introduced in iOS 7.

Here’s a gallery of pictures showing what the experience is like on Apple Watch.

Sky Guide on the iPhone and iPad differentiates itself by not using actual augmented reality through the phone’s camera. Users can move the phone around the sky to adjust the view, but they see a fully rendered image of the sky, not an overlay on a live image. The quality of the resulting experience is one of the appeals of the iOS app, a past GeekWire App of the Week.

Laurel and Risinger started working together in 2012, after initially meeting at an astronomical visualization conference at the University of Washington in Seattle. Risinger’s past work includes the Photopic Sky Survey, a massive astrophotography project, and Laurel is the creator of Celestia, an open source application for astronomical visualization. They had seen modest success on their own, but working together they’ve been able to make a living exclusively from selling Sky Guide on the iOS App Store.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to GeekWire's free newsletters to catch every headline


Job Listings on GeekWork

Find more jobs on GeekWork. Employers, post a job here.