New Exercise App Hides Messages to Your Friends in a Workout

Too many times we encounter the technological letdown of a good app gone futile – great idea, poor execution. It's comparable to the disappointment of a child in a less-techy era beating a piñata just to discover that it held no candy (my seventh birthday). That's how the Trace Map app felt during a test run: fun, anticipatory, and amusing,  then quickly spiraling to a letdown.

Trace Map, designed at the University of Washington and funded by Intel, is an app for those of us who now prioritize running, biking, and walking over candy. It turns a digital sketch that you draw on your smartphone screen — a heart, beer bottle, thumbs up — into a route that you can send to a friend. The app gives the recipient turn-by-turn directions and reveals the mystery message or shape that you drew for them as they run, walk, or bike the route. It allows you to start a route at any point in any city and depending on how long you want the path to be, you can make the shape larger or smaller to accommodate a workout that is as long as you want it to be. At specified locations along the route you can also include audio recordings, images, or other messages that will pop up to give the recipient hints. It's like a secret agent app meets workout. If only the mission hadn't failed.

I recruited two friends to download the app with me, one in Seattle and another in New York City, to put Trace Map to the test on three different devices: an iPhone 5, an iPhone 6, and a Droid. The app downloaded from the iTunes store flawlessly for the iPhone 5, while the app kept giving "incompatible" notifications to the 6 and the Droid devices, making it impossible to download. After speaking with a developer on the iPhone team, I discovered that the software is currently optimized for iPhone 5. Being a Droid user, I was accommodated with an off-the-market test version from the Trace Map team.

I called my friend in Seattle, we created routes, and secret messages were exchanged. When I got my notification that I had a new route waiting for me, I experienced that excitement to go out and hit the pavement that only the promise of a surprise ending could invoke. But it wasn't the surprise ending I'd hoped for. Instead of shapes of a Nike swoosh and wine glasses traced through the streets of Seattle and NYC, we were left with notifications for unfinished routes.

It all came to a bitter end when I got a phone call from my Seattle tester: "I didn't finish the route." After a mild chastising for giving up, I asked her why. "Because it's not fun. It was taking me places I didn't want to go, and I was trying to get a run in." While the idea of sending each other on surprise running routes was a great idea, it just wasn't the best way to execute a workout. You end up being more concerned about going down a street in a bad neighborhood, taking a turn the wrong way down a one way street, or being told by Trace Map that the only way to finish your Nike swoosh is to run to the top of that giant, quad-killing hill. Instead of enjoying our workouts and completing our runs, we were just doing the biddings of our devices. It felt empty. Like that seventh birthday piñata.