John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Designed by brain scientists, "Traces" seeks to make messaging more meaningful.
In the not-too-distant future, here's how you tell a friend that you made them a surprise.
You don't write an email, simple as that would be. Instead, you send your friends a notification that directs them to go somewhere—maybe the corner store, maybe a marketplace in Nigeria. When they arrive, they scan the area with their smartphone until a crystalline, floating orb appears, like this one:
They then train their phone on the orb to unlock a hidden message—a link to Guardians of the Galaxy tickets, perhaps, or a YouTube video of awful kittens singing "Happy Birthday to You."
Yeah, you could just go ahead and send that email, but that would make the folks behind the new app Traces very disappointed. As described by Paul Marks in New Scientist magazine, the people behind Traces believe that popular social news-delivering sites like Facebook lag behind by making the user a "completely passive receiver." Sending their virtual info-blobs is far preferable, their sales pitch goes, because it creates a more "immersive" experience that adds "real-world context to social media."
Traces is the latest example of the persistent creep of augmented reality, which has popped up lately in everything from urban video games to architectural renderings to IKEA catalogs. There do seem to be several things going in favor of the app, right now only available as a beta version in the U.K. For one, it was designed by scientists—Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist, and perception researcher Richard Clarke—so there is a chance that physically hunting down hidden messages actually does make for "more meaningful, human digital experiences." (It certainly provides more exercise, always important in this era of deepening desk-chair ass grooves.) There's also a fun sense of urgency, as the person making "traces" can set them to disappear at a given time.
Here are some of the possible ways one could use this service, as suggested by its creators: "Leave a secret message for a friend to find." "Tag your classroom with a hidden video." "Send your friends on a treasure hunt." (It also could be levered toward less-positive activities, presumably, such as luring someone into public so you can hit him with a pie or breaking up with a lover at the place you first met without actually being there.)
But my sense is that Traces will not convert even a handful of users of the big social-networking sites. It sounds fun to add techno-interest to a treasure hunt, but as a means to send messages, the novelty would wear off fast. There are only so many times people are going to interrupt their TV-watching or dinner-making to embark on a quirky quest. Just thinking about it is making me impatient to have the answer in my hand, right now. (I'm hoping it's an enchanted credit-card number for me to buy a new bike with.)
Or maybe I'm wrong. Who's to say that good, old-fashioned curiosity wouldn't send someone out to search the streets for a mysterious gift before the opportunity vanished forever?