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February 20, 2013

Artists create mobile app to explore wilderness in urban spaces

people by Eastman Theater
Cary Peppermint, assistant professor of art, leads a group of senior art majors, including Carlos Tejeda (center) and Jacqueline Carpentier (right) on a walk around downtown using the Indeterminate Hikes mobile app.

Smartphones have sped up communication. But two Roch­ester professors are looking to use mobile technology to slow people down. Their new “Indeterminate Hikes” (IH+) app encourages participants to focus attention on the environ­ment and experience nature in unexpected urban spaces.

“In general, smartphones or mobile phones are task-oriented,” says Cary Pepper­mint, assistant professor of art. “With IH+ all this is disrupted because the phone becomes a tool for imagination, creativity, and exploration.”

Peppermint and Leila Nadir, a writer and lecturer on sus­tainability, are the cofounders of EcoArtTech, a collaboration that explores technology and environmentally focused work with other artists and organiza­tions. Their work, which uses new media to inspire aware­ness of nature in everyday life, can currently be found in the collections of the Whitney Museum, Walker Art Center, and New Museum.

“When we talk about sustain­ability and the environment, it is usually about protecting rural spaces,” says Nadir. “With this app, we want to adopt that same mentality but apply it to cities to understand how they evolve.”

According to Peppermint and Nadir, a big part of that process is learning how to slow down. After downloading IH+, users “pioneer” a “hike” by en­tering a start and end location, similar to finding directions online. But instead of selecting a direct route, Google Maps generates a random path with prompts and activities that encourage users to look for wilderness in urban spaces. “The prompts increase aware­ness of the environment where you live and also cause social interactions—you’re using the technology to reconnect with space instead of people,” says Peppermint.

When following the route, users may be asked to take a photograph with their phones at selected points, write a “field note” on their phones, send a text message to someone, or perform a particular task—all in response to their surround­ings. “Hikes” are intended to be performed in groups and with one phone—to make the experience socially interactive.

“Wilderness is all around you and the app encourages users to give the same attention to inner-city parks and rain gut­ters that we do to landscapes like canyons and gorges,” says Nadir.

Once a hike is complete, users can download their ex­perience to so others can view the journey. So far, hikes have been pioneered in both the U.S. and Europe. Participants also can choose to pioneer a hike in companion species mode, where scenic vistas are selected by pets for people to enjoy. The app is available for both iPhone and Android phones.

take a hike appSee the app in action in downtown Rochester at UniversityRochester

“People are really excited and inspired by the newness of the experience,” says Pepper­mint, who believes that good art should interrupt people’s expectations. “We also find that when you bring art, na­ture, and technology together people are relieved. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.”

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