This story is over 5 years old.


A Neuroscientist's Social App Forces You to Actually Engage With Messages

The neuroscience-inspired 'Traces' app makes you get out in the real world to pick up content.
Image: Traces

Social networks mean that, if we want to, we can be in contact with people almost all of the time. But neuroscientist Beau Lotto at the University College of London argues that existing networks—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like—aren't actually facilitating human relationships. Far from engaging users with each other, they make us the passive recipients of information.

Through his research into human behaviour and perception, Lotto has identified what he considers a fundamental contradiction. "What's fascinating is that [social networks] are not actually geared towards what the brain needs to be social," he said in an interview. "They don't facilitate human relationships in the way that they're used. Instead, they facilitate more of a peacock effect because they're basically broadcasting mechanisms." Consequently, users are left feeling unattached and disengaged. This research has led him, along with a team of mobile designers at his company Ripple Inc, to develop his own messaging app, "Traces."


The app is a result of what Lotto calls neurodesign: the collaboration of behavioural neuroscience with design, the aim being to enrich the experience of the user by making them an active, rather than passive, participant in social exchange.

With Traces, users can leave pieces of music, messages, pictures, and suchlike ("traces") out in the real world for a recipient to collect. You leave your trace as an augmented reality "droplet" in a physical place of your choosing. The recipient then gets notified and the location will appear on their map within the app. Once they're within 100 metres, they're able to view the AR droplet imposed on its real-world surroundings. Even closer—50 metres—and they can "grab" it.

Lotto's research into human behaviour and perception influenced the app. One relevant observation from his work was the importance of history in how our brains process information. "All information is inherently meaningless; your brain has to create a meaning from it and it does this through the history of experience," he explained. The idea is that when a user of Traces goes to pick up a message they've been sent, they're forced to actively engage with it.

Lotto also focuses on the importance of context for the human brain. Using Traces, the sender can choose the site-specific context in which their message is received, thus creating an experience for the receiver that's tethered to a fixed place. "You're now experiencing the message in the real world, so the world becomes the context for the message," he said.


The app also draws on research into how the brain develops and maintains relationships, and Lotto gave a nod to research in this area conducted by anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar and his group at Oxford University. Fundamental elements here include shared trust and shared effort, or "synchronicity." "You have to have mutual engagement, mutual trust, mutual effort—in other words, it needs to be a two-way street," said Lotto.

Image: Traces

With Traces, not only does the sender have to put effort into creating the trace; the recipient also has to trust that what they're sending is worthwhile, and put in the effort to actually go and collect it.

Research Lotto's team did with the app supported these ideas. They compared two groups receiving the same trace (in this instance, a Nina Simone track), one via Traces and one as an attachment or message. They found that participants who received the music via Traces believed the track was actually better and felt closer to the person who had left it for them.

Neurodesigned augmented reality apps won't be making Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter defunct any time soon—these social networks still clearly serve a purpose in situations when instant messaging and broadcasting is required or desired. But Lotto sees it as bridging the gap between the real world and technology. As he sold it, "It's one of the first examples where you're able to use digital technology to get people to really engage with the physical world, when digital is typically a barrier to that."