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Have you ever gazed up at the night sky and wondered exactly what it was you were gazing at? Even here in New York, we catch tantalizing glimpses of mysterious heavenly bodies from time to time. So when associate editor Tony Hoffman and I were invited by Meade Instruments to a real, live demo of its new “handheld Interactive multimedia guide, mySKY,” we jumped at the chance.

Of course, the demo had to be held after dark in an unlighted place with some wide-open sky, which is why we found ourselves standing in the middle of a ballfield in Central Park at 9 PM. Thankfully, the nighttime park is populated mostly by dog-walkers these days. The Meade folks set up an impressively professional-looking telescope, then brought out the mySKY. Here’s how it works: You point it at a planet, or star, or galaxy that you want to identify, aim as best you can, and press a button. Voila–information about what you’re aiming at appears on the device’s color LCD; some more important objects even have voice recordings and video that go along with them.

After the jump, find out what makes it work, and how well it worked for us!

So how does this device know what you’re pointing at? Built in are a GPS unit, accelerometers, and magnetic north sensors, so it knows where you are and can calculate the mySKY’s aim and positioning. It works out of the box, and pretty instantaneously. There are over 30,000 objects in its database, so most of what’s visible to the naked eye can be identified. And the mySKY’s updateable: It comes with an SD card, so you can pull new info off the Web and add it.

But wait, there’s more. Maybe you want to locate a specific object; say, Arcturus. Just find it in the mySKY’s database, and the device will show your a real-time sky map with arrows that guide you to the star of choice. Also available are “guided tours” of the night sky, specific to your location and the current date/time. The device is compatible with any Meade telescope; connect them, and you can then locate objects with the mySKY, then view them through the telescope.

On the night of our demo, the air was humid and a bit thick, so visibility wasn’t ideal, but we found Venus right away and heard a voiceover about it. After a bit of a wait, more and fainter objects appeared, and I took my turn at pointing and clicking. The mySKY is a bit tricky to aim, but I got the right information about the star I was pointing at–and it was kind of thrilling! We did have a couple misfires, though. I am hoping that with practice and a clearer sky, that won’t be as much of an issue.

We’ll be able to confirm that theory soon, as Meade will be sending us a final unit once they are available for testing. Look for a hands-on update sometime this month. The mySKY should be available for purchase by the end of June. At $399, it’s a bit more costly than a toy. In fact, it’s a serious educational device, and at the same time, it’s great fun for anyone with astronomical inclinations.

UPDATE from Tony Hoffman: I attended Meade’s Central Park MySky demonstration (described in the initial post), which I found impressive, and I had hoped to test and review a MySky for Gearlog. When we finally got a review unit in (one of the first wave of test units, we were told), I took it to our family home in the Catskills for testing. After acquiring our location (it took 2 tries to do this via GPS–it would have been easier to have chosen the nearest city on their list from the menu), I got a message on screen that said that the mySKY needed to adjust its sensors, and to place it on a stable surface. The most stable surfaces around the yard are cinder blocks, and I tried several (because the cinder blocks were stable but not necessarily level), but the sensors would not align within 10 minutes or so. (The text appeared all wavy, as if something was adjusting, but it never went beyond that.).The next night, I procured a surface that was both stable and level–a small, solid wood table–and set it far away from house, car, or anything that could magnetically sway it, but once again I had no luck in getting the sensors to adjust.

After reporting this to Meade, I was told there was a bug in the test unit, and that they were “working round the clock to make sure the next wave of units [were] bug-free.” In time, I received a replacement. This one I brought with me on a trip to Michigan, where I’d both hoped to test it myself and let the friend who I was staying and his 9- and 13-year-old kids try it, too. One clear night I took it outside and powered it on. When I went to the introductory video, the audio and video started off fine, but after 10 or 15 seconds the audio faded out and disappeared altogether, though the video continued to play. I tried upping the volume control, but that didn’t do anything. Thinking that maybe the batteries had been somehow drained, I tried two other sets of new (Duracell-type) batteries, but although the video played with no problem, I couldn’t get the audio to work at all.

I suppose I could have tested the other features, but with something so glaring wrong with it, it didn’t seem worth it. (It would be like getting a new PC to test, with a DVD player that didn’t work.) We decided not to pursue reviewing MySky any further, not to request yet another review unit. After all that, though, I do think the product has good potential that it failed to live up to in the execution, at least with the two units we were sent. The fact that I think that Meade has a promising product here made the problems I had with it all the more disappointing. I’m glad to see that some people have had better experiences with it (in comments, below)–I can only hope that my problems with it were more of a fluke than the norm.

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Meade’s Scott Roberts sets up the telescope in Central Park.

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Tony aims at a heavenly body.

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The mySKY points us toward a specific star.

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