Smartphones are very good at getting you from Point A to Point B in the most direct, efficient means possible. Navigation apps abound for this purpose.
But most are geared to those traveling by car. The needs of pedestrians are after-thoughts, if they are thought of at all. And recommended walking routes – on Google Maps, for example – generally follow car routes, albeit quieter streets where possible. Trails and paths are not a part of the navigation database and are are usually ignored.
The most significant downfall of these apps as pedestrian ‘navigational’ tools is that they favour efficiency over exploration. Yet, the biggest benefit of walking is the ability to wander at will. Walkers can go where they want: take shortcuts through fields, change direction on a dime, follow eyes and noses. Look up and down. Stop. Anywhere.
In short, walkers have the luxury of getting lost. But that can be a hard concept to grasp in a car-culture governed by straight-line navigation between points. The value society places on wandering aimlessly is very low. We compare walk vs. car travel times when we ought to be thinking in terms of discovery and exploration.
Enter a set of smartphone navigation apps designed to get the walker lost. Over the coming weeks and months, my series of blog posts, Apps To Get Lost With, will examine and test some of the available smartphone apps designed to take a foot-powered journey off the beaten path.
First comes Drift, a free, iOS-only app available through iTunes. As the name implies, this is an app that plays with the notion of a psychogeographic walk – also known as a dérive or a drift – as promoted in the 1950s and 60s by the Situationist movement. A common drift technique designed to throw a walker off their A-to-B path and see their world in a fresh way, uses a set of cards with a random set of instructions. One card might say turn right and walk two blocks. The next might instruct the walker to turn left and go to the next red door. And so on.
The Drift app builds on that model but adds an artistic component. It’s the result of a 2012 collaborative project between Broken City Lab and artist Justin Langlois. Users of the app become collaborators as well. They are asked to follow navigation instructions and, using the built-in camera, take a photograph as each step of the drift is completed. Users can choose to upload the completed set of pictures so that they can be curated and presented on a website managed by Broken City Labs. Unfortunately, that website does not appear to exist. However the user can email a completed drift to themselves and friends. Posting each step of the walk to Twitter is also possible, although the instructions often exceed the 140 character limit (including the photo) and require editing.
I took Drift out for a test walk this week. I chose a starting point on Riddle Street – appropriate, I thought – in Winnipeg’s West End. It’s not far from home but in slightly less familiar territory than my own neighborhood.
The complete set of instructions that I followed and the photographs I took along the way are presented below.
Basically, the app took me north, south, east and west. A built-in compass made sure I was going in the intended direction. Each stage of the walk came with wide variety of ancillary instructions and included loose parameters for a photograph to be taken along the way, using the camera built into the app. The instructions could be as simple as, “Walk east for a block and find something that was recently improved and take a picture of it.” Or as challenging as, “Walk south until you find someone to ask for directions, inquire about the fastest way to get to the nearest pharmacy and take a picture in the direction they point you.”
That last one was particularly demanding. I had travelled from the West End, back into my own Wolseley neighbourhood, across the Assiniboine River and was now in the single-family residential streets of River Heights. Nearby pharmacies were not in the cards, let alone finding a pedestrian in this quiet, low-density neighbourhood. After a few blocks walking south, I crossed paths with a young guy who, amazingly, was willing and able to point out the nearest pharmacy he could think of. About a twenty minute walk east, he warned. That’s fine. I just needed him to point me towards it. I thanked him, took the requested photo and headed off on the next stage of my drift.
The Drift app does not map a journey. That is not really the point of using it. But I was curious and used another app to track my trip. You will find my plotted course below.
There were 10 steps to my drift, taking 42 minutes and covering 3.6 kilometers. But the trip could have taken much longer if, for example, I had not found someone willing to direct a stranger to a pharmacy. Or the trip might have been shorter if I were in a more densely populated area with a good commercial component. The app also allows the user to select the complexity of their drift, which ranges from 6 to 30 stages.
There is nothing earth-shattering about the Drift app. We all have the ability to wander at will. We can all pull out our smartphones and take pictures of things that strike our fancy. We don’t need an app to do what comes naturally and requires no particular skill.
Or do we? Have we lost the non-skill of rambling about just for the heck of it?
Take Drift out for your own walk. Test the app but, more importantly, test your own ability to get lost. And find something new.