Trace is the third in a trio of walking apps that I’m putting to the test. And, yes, it involves a dog.
Developed at the Tactile and Tactical Design Lab (TAT Lab) at the University of Washington., the app was designed to explore the role of GIS (geographic information systems) technology in shifting our walking habits away from efficiency and towards communication and reflection.
It all starts with a sketch drawn on the screen of a smartphone, a simple line drawing that the app then transfers to a mapped route for the walker to follow.
Here’s how it works.
It was a warm, late-winter day for a walk and I thought I would share it with Styxx, our sleek greyhound and co-conspirator in earlier psychogeographic adventures. A sketch of Styxx seemed appropriate.
Annotations can be added to the drawing; a text message, a photo or a music file. I added a few dog-appropriate messages at the paws, nose, ears and tail of my greyhound drawing.
The next step is to send the drawing to a registered Trace user. I sent it to my email address but I could have sent it to someone else, allowing them to follow-through with their own dog-inspired walk.
The fun begins when you click the home screen’s “Walk” button. The title of my map, “Take a walk with Styxx”, appears here along with the titles of any other maps that might have been sent to me by other registered users.
Once a walk is selected, the app asks you to choose a trip duration – I chose 120 minutes, although it could have been anywhere from 10 to 300 minutes. It then goes to work, creating the route we will follow.
The starting point is wherever you happen to be standing. For this trip, Styxx and I made our way to the corner of Wilton Street and Corydon Avenue, in Winnipeg’s River Heights neighbourhood. I thought its tight grid of streets would allow a finer-grained interpretation of my sketch.
The app did not reveal the map it had created based on my dog sketch. Instead it gave turn-by-turn instructions in pop-ip windows and a Google-style map interface, indicating our current position, and a tiny red-line fragment showing the path to our next instruction. The complete route map is not revealed until all the instructions are completed. At least that is the idea. I’ll get to that shortly.
The pop-up instructions were confusing to follow. “Take a right on McMillan Ave” is clear enough. But the only other form of instruction always started with “Proceed to…”. As Styxx and I discovered, “Proceed to Guelph St”, which would pop up when we were actually on Guelph Street, could mean ‘keep going straight’ or ‘turn around and retrace your steps’. The only hint was the red-line fragment indicating the direction to the next instruction.
This is fine from a “getting lost” perspective. But I found my eyes were too often glued to the screen, trying to figure out directions, and not enough on the pleasant residential neighbourhood we were passing through.
As we moved along our route, a surprise pop-up window appeared. “Whoa! What’s that!”. This was the first of my annotations, pinned to the rear paw of my Styxx drawing and mapped by Trace to the corner of Rockwood Street and Mulvey Avenue. A little later, another of my text messages appeared, “Stop and smell the roses”.
These easter eggs get to the true strength of the app. The ethereal social interaction between one person preparing the drawing and another person using the drawing is layered with the app’s geographical mapping of the neighbourhood. Drawing, message, user and map all converge in delightfully random ways. Here, at the corner of Rockwood Street and Mulvey Avenue, my eyes lifted from the screen to take in the long string of post-war stucco homes. Whoa! What’s that! Indeed.
At the three-quarter point of our ramble, the app appeared to lose its position. Or we lost touch with the app. “Proceed to Harrow Street” took us up and down that street several times. The red-line fragments disappeared forever. Styxx and I were frustrated. The app – no doubt disgusted with us – just gave up. So we cheated. We went to the next screen, which showed the complete map.
The map of our walk vaguely look like my greyhound sketch. It was probably too hard a drawing to convert into a street-based route. A simple heart shape might be better, especially for a first attempt using the app. Regardless, the app makes for a fun walk and does its best to lose its users.
While I chose to follow my own drawing, the ability for others to send mystery routes to their friends and family, complete with secret text or media messages, adds unique opportunities for user-interaction. Which is one of the declared goals of the app developers.
But, from a getting-lost perspective, my regret is that Trace is too interactive. En route, it requires too much attention, too much screen-watching.
Getting lost in an app is not the same as getting lost in the world.
We followed the map back to our starting point, the corner of Wilton Street and Corydon Avenue. Styxx appreciated the real reason for beginning and ending here. A chance to scrounge a dog treat at the Pawsh Dog Spa across the street.
A brief postscript from Styxx:
You don’t need an app to get lost. David and I can manage that on our own. Check out our fine book, Walking Styxx, a month of psychogeographic walks with a greyhound.