Between Facebook, Pokémon Go, Snapchat, and the myriad apps we have on our phones, it's easy to keep our eyes glued to a screen at the expense of paying attention to what's around us. Designer Ekene Ijeoma found this to be troublesome, and created the app Look Up to remind people to be more present as they meander through NYC's streets.
His goal is to "tear down digital walls" that isolate individuals in the public realm. "I wanted to use phones to prompt people to see, acknowledge and value each other more," Ijeoma says. "I think looking up from our phones to acknowledge others could bring a lot more empathy between people which is something we could use a lot of right now."
The app, which is only available on Android, uses data culled from the New York Department of Transportation's Vision Zero program—an initiative to bring the number of traffic-related deaths to zero—on the fatalities and crashes that occur at a particular intersection. If an intersection has had more crashes or fatalities, it has more "energy" within the app—a reminder of the energy lost from a crash and that you should be dedicating more human energy (ie. attention) to the intersection. Using your phone's GPS, the app notifies you of the intersection's energy level, showing you an animated eyeball if you're on your phone's home screen as a live wallpaper (the app has to be continually running in the background to work), and sending a notification if you're using another app. You can program the app to notify you of the energy level at every intersection, every third intersection you cross, or at random.
The higher the energy score at a given intersection, the more vibrations you receive and the more intense the motion graphics are, meaning that there are more iris lines in the eyeball animation. Receiving a notification or seeing the animation lets users know they should look up and around, take notice of their surroundings, and perhaps even make eye contact with another person.
While the project's social element is Ijeoma's focus, it could also be a potent safety intervention for people who might not be as aware of their surroundings while moving through the city. "Phone distraction and street awareness have become global cultural issues," Ijeoma says. "It’s starting to feel like a smartphone zombie apocalypse." Other designers, like Pentagram with its Look! campaign, have tried to tackle the problem through graphics.
In the last decade, the number of pedestrians injured while using a cell phone has been on the rise, according to multiple studies. Walkers distracted by cell phones have even prompted some cities to paint "phone" lanes on sidewalks: while Philadelphia did it as part of an April Fool's awareness campaign, it was a very real intervention in Chongqing, China. A New Jersey congresswoman recently proposed a bill to ticket pedestrians who text while crossing a street.
"Pedestrian safety can’t happen without empathy," Ijeoma says. While this app won't do anything to stop careless people who text while they drive—the real cause of many traffic collisions—being more mindful as a pedestrian is essential for safety.
"Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians need to have empathy for each other to share our streets. Same for people from different sociocultural and economic backgrounds. Between all the racial and political polarizations, there needs to be empathy. Look Up prompts participants to acknowledge one another and share their energy. When people start channeling less of their energy into their devices and more into the streets pedestrian safety becomes inherent."
For safety reasons, it might be worth running Look Up in the background if you're one of the thousands of Pokémon Go fans combing the streets, lest you inadvertently run into traffic to catch 'em all.