News & Views

Traces App

by Contagious Team

Neuroscientist Dr Beau Lotto has launched Traces - an immersive messaging app that lets users leave digital content for others to discover in specific physical locations. We caught up with Beau to hear more about the app and the neuroscience behind it.

Using the Traces app, people plant a water droplet anywhere in the world, with content such as a song or a note, and invite someone to track it down. In order to unlock the content, the user has to travel to the location where it was planted. They can then 'Retrace' it a limited number of times. 

How did your research lead you to come up with the idea for Traces?

My interest has always been about creating spaces that give the opportunity for people to see differently. We do that by first understanding how people see from a behavioural neuroscience perspective, then use it to create opportunities so that people can see differently. 

What you see is grounded in your history: your brain takes information which is meaningless and it makes it meaningful. The way it makes it meaningful is by literally engaging with the world, with the physical world around you and associating what you see now with what you saw in the past. A lot of messaging, like Google Glass etc, is about information but the brain’s indifferent to that, it doesn't know what to do with it. What it really wants is something meaningful. History, location, people you care about - those are the things that make it meaningful for the brain.

How does Traces compare to other social messaging apps?

We know that services like Facebook and WhatsApp messaging services decrease human relationships. The reason, especially with Facebook, is that it’s not actually grounded in what humans need to relate. It’s one-dimensional and one-directional, whereas Traces does a number of things that are required for the brain to have a relationship. It creates a sense of trust, because if I leave you a Trace I don’t tell you what to do. You trust that Beau has left me a Trace, I hope it’s of some value, I’m going to go and get it. I also have to trust that you’re going to go and get it. So you’re making an effort to get it and I’m making an effort to create it - at that point you have trust. We know that those two aspects, in particular, foster relationships and also increase the value of the things you receive.

For instance, we left a Nina Simone song in a location in central London and had two large groups collecting that piece of music via Traces or WhatsApp. People who discovered it using Traces all said the piece of music was better. They all felt closer to Nina Simone and they all said the location was meaningful.

What you’re doing is you’re playing with peoples’ dopamine levels. The brain’s greatest pleasure is in the anticipation; it’s not in the realisation. That’s where you get a dopamine spike - and that anticipation is built into Traces.

How do you anticipate brands will use Traces?

In general brands want to do two things: they want a loyal relationship and they want to do that increasingly through creating experiences. Brands want to be the creators of experiences, so Traces enables brands to create experiences for their audience by leaving things in a location. For instance, imagine your brand is a musician, such as Avicii. They can leave music in locations and their followers can actually get notifications that Avicii has left a new track in Trafalgar Square and it’s only going to be there for an hour. You can imagine the people are just going to go and grab it. 

You can stream the music for free, but if you want to take it with you it’s an in-app purchase. It’s not only a completely new way for music but also think about the potential for publishing – leaving stories on location where you actually read the story in the location where the characters are – and, of course, tourism.

What are your plans to monetise Traces?

The app is free and you can leave a free Trace for up to a month, but if you leave it forever then that’s an app purchase. Why? Because basically you’re buying server time and people understand that. Of course, in order for to maintain their Traces they have to stay on the platform, so that’s also an encouragement to stay on Traces. We’re emphasising the gifting side of sharing, not the broadcasting side. By having a limited edition drop icon that you purchase, the drop itself becomes a gift as well as the thing inside. You could imagine collecting those. 

There are also so many practical elements. If you’re at a gig and you can’t find your friend just leave a drop over your head and there you are. Find your car, find your tent at Glastonbury, you just follow the drop. You could have all the houses that are for sale, you don’t have to have for sale signs you can just leave traces in front of the houses. So there’s a tremendous amount of practical uses that we know are possible.