words Crystal Bennes
The ever-increasing dominance of the smartphone means that “I’ve got an app for that” is practically a battle cry for the technologically connected. Want to know how much REM sleep you’re getting every night? There’s an app for that. How about the days of the month a woman is at her most fertile, to aid conception? Yep, there’s an app for that too. The architecture and design community, though, for all their affection for the latest gadgets, seem to have been less innovative with regards to smartphone apps; most seem to be straightforward architectural tour guides of various popular cities.
Young designer Tom Loois has taken a far more interesting approach with his recent app, Blank Ways. On display at the Design Academy Eindhoven exhibition during this year’s Salone, Blank Ways encourages its user to look at their city with different eyes. The app is essentially route-planning software – the same kind of thing you might use to figure out how to drive from London to Edinburgh. But while it records where it has been, it uses that knowledge to plan future alternative routes through streets and destinations hitherto unknown to the user.
“The brief for this project was about your personal definition of silence,” Loois explains. “I was biking to college just before the deadline and I still hadn’t figured out what I was going to do. I biked the route from home to college about four times a day, so I didn’t really expect to draw inspiration there, but all of a sudden I noticed an alley on my left. I’ve travelled this route 100 times and never noticed this little alley. I had no idea where it went and thus the idea: silence for me was the places I’d never been.”
Taking this idea as his starting point, Loois then began the process of working out exactly where he had and hadn’t been in Eindhoven – using help from his parents and Google Street View – throughout the course of his entire life. Once this data had been accumulated, Loois noticed the emergence of interesting visual patterns – the same routes he retraced over and over again: to get to school, to the station or to the supermarket. He noticed that he’d never visited certain streets despite the fact that they were incredibly close to where he lived. Naturally, in the next stage of the project, Loois began to visit the places he had never been: “Because I was doing this project, I visited these places in such a mindful way … it didn’t matter that the street was ugly, beautiful or deserted, the fact that I was really experiencing what was around me was a great feeling.”
Loois wanted to help others share in similar experiences, to aid them in discovering the unknown in their own cities and initially thought of creating a book, but soon hit upon the use of navigation software for smartphones. Blank Ways essentially combines the phone’s navigation software with a route-tracing app, but instead of focusing on where the user is at present or where they’ve already been, the app displays unvisited areas to provide each user with a custom guide for exploring their own unknown city.