The Trace app generates walking routes based on digital sketches people create, digitally mark and send to others. When someone receives a Trace (e.g. circle, star or letter) the app guides that person along a walk of variable length wherever she happens to be. In contrast to most walking apps, Trace emphasizes travel over transport, serendipity over precision, and social connections over goals.
The Trace project emerged from a reflection on contemporary technologies for walking. Our design team at the University of Washington convened to explore this technological space and noted a turn toward competition- and goal-oriented techniques. Pedometer++, for example, is a smartphone application that displays bar charts of someone’s approximate number of steps (or shakes of a phone). Colors indicate success based on whether the count moves above or below a default threshold. These applications became intriguing for their functionalist approaches to walking. By emphasizing a target number of device shakes or a pre-specified destination, the applications oriented walking toward particular concerns for number and end goal, emphasizing geographic precision over local improvisations.
We began imagining how GIS routing applications could offer situated and partial views of walking that emphasize other values. What if instead of emphasizing transport, the app foregrounded experiences of travel? What if instead of orienting toward step counts and end goals, the app supported social connections? What if instead of precision, the app promoted exploration and improvisation? In other words, how might people reflect on existing technologies when presented with the same technology done in different ways?
Trace arose from these questions of difference in GIS routing. The application generates walking routes based on digital sketches people create and digitally mark without a map. In addition to creating walking paths, Trace enables people to send their paths to others. When someone receives a Trace (e.g. circle, star or letter) the application produces stretches of a path wherever those people happen to be. Depending on the location of that person and how long they wish to walk, Trace draws the walk across different roads and trails.
In an early release of Trace we learned what this re-specification of GIS might present for people who walk regularly: asking sixteen people from three cities (Boston, Chicago and Seattle) to take up Trace for daily walks. During these walks, Trace evoked surprising contrasts. Some began to observe their environment as they walked, slowing down to notice people and features of their environment (a wacky neighbor, a hidden park) they normally wouldn't have. Other people discussed feeling unnatural to walk the same path - finding that "usually people only walk down the same path if they’re making a mistake." Noticing this feature prompted people to reflect on the algorithm translating a sketch into a route. They began trying to orient their journey using what they learned of the algorithm, drawing a line in the direction they sought to head, often abandoning the Trace without reaching an end. On person drew two squares that resembled the blocks he stood adjacent to. While heading to the gym one day, another person drew up in the direction she wanted to walk and then lifted her finger at the end. They began to examine and question the app's underlying logic and how they could make it work.