We’ve all seen industrious bikers and joggers carve out little shapes on Google Maps. Trace is an app that flips this idea on its head. A project led by University of Washington’s Daniela Rosner, it allows you to draw a shape and send it to someone else, like a secret message.
And the only way they can decode it? Walk it out.
The shape is encrypted in turn-by-turn directions. So as your recipients walk, run, or bike, they draw the shape with their own path.
“[What if] instead of transporting someone to a place, the application focused on the journey?” Rosner asks. “What if instead of attempting to motivate a walk through step counts and tracking, the application extended social relations through walking?” Those are the fundamental premises driving Trace.
The app was tested on 16 walkers, who experimented with 150 different shapes, in Seattle, Boston, and Chicago.
Some people grew impatient when walking out a shape, choosing to simply beeline for their destination instead. One person entered a bad neighborhood, so she ended her Trace session. That made Rosner ponder how GPS-style tools relate to “racial, ethnic, and class-based boundaries” while noting that Trace began to “chart discriminatory behaviors–reflecting (and sometimes exasperating) desires for safety, efficiency, and control.”
But it wasn’t all a lab rat experiment gone wrong. In the sweetest story of them all, one person used the app to draw a portrait of America for her and her Colombian boyfriend to walk along one afternoon, like a little ode to the country that brought them together.