‘Look Up’ App by Ekene Ijeoma

Look Up is a marvelous “participatory public art app” from NYC designer Ekene Ijeoma.   The idea, of course, is to get people walking the sidewalks of NY to “look up” from their mobile devices. He wants everyone to “engage in the diversity and serendipity of the city.”

Unfortunately, the app appears to only work in New York City, so I (and practically the entire human species) can’t actually try it.

Working from the description, it apparently detects when you near a cross walk—where I really wish you would look up, just for safety—and issues a vibration and visual notification to prompt you to look up now, for goodness sake. This “builds a ritual of looking up at intersections and not missing out on the city”.

Yes! This basic behavior sounds like a pretty useful safety feature that should be installed on all mobile devices by default, with no way to turn it off!  And what a fine response to the flood of mediocre “Inappropriate Touch Screens” in the world!

Ijeoma goes further, desiring to take “all the energy we put into our phones back into our streets.” He operationalizes “energy” is a rather peculiar way, using city data about traffic injuries and fatalities as a measure of the “energy” that has been “lost” at that intersection. Huh? That’s certainly not what I think of when you talk about the “energy” of the streets.

Anyway, this energy score is reflected in the animation, suggesting to the user how much “energy” they should put back.

When you get the notification, what do people do?

Actually, there is no specific action requested. The app “frees” people from their phones and “opens them to the people and city around them.” Ijeoma would like people to make eye contact and say hello, and friends to hug.

Look Up hopes to tear down the digital walls we build up, opening us to seeing, acknowledging and valuing the people and city around us.

This is a cool idea, even if the specific “energy” score is goofy, and even if people only glance up.   The main thing is to start redesigning mobile devices so they are not single-minded attention suckers, so they fit into the context of a more humane life.

Obviously, the “energy” score could be done in different ways, perhaps collecting crowdsourced data about what is happening on the streets, perhaps working in personal history and preferences (e.g., when several friends are near, when favorite street artists are near, when something ‘interesting’ is happening, etc.).

The animation could be extended to give more specific behavioral prompts. E.g., you and another participant might be asked to hop or dance for a couple of seconds, as a sort of mini celebration. (I can’t help thinking of Bounden in this context, too.) Or several people at the same intersection might be asked to sing softly into the mobile, which plays back the joined voices. And so on.

Finally, I have to say it is a shame that this is so tightly tied to NYC. I wonder what it would take to make localized versions to for my home town, or wherever.

I like the idea, and it made me think.

Nice work.

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