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Drift, An App That Helps You Wander Around Your City Like A Newcomer, A Dreamer

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The skyline of the business district is silhouetted at sunset in Hong Kong Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
The skyline of the business district is silhouetted at sunset in Hong Kong Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

After living in the same city for many months and years, and driving over the same asphalt roads, and passing the same drab buildings on your daily commute, you might become disenchanted or bored with your hometown. How can you rekindle the wonder you felt on first glimpsing that fabulous cityscape, or rediscover the mystery that existed within each fantastic new storefront or skyscraper you passed?

Enter Drift, a new iPhone app that aims to help you "get lost in familiar places" and revive that fascination you had with your city which may have faded since move-in day. The app provides the user with a boilerplate set of turn-by-turn walking directions to follow, only each direction comes with an oblique, strange, or tantalizing instruction for a photo one should take at the end of each block. Upon completion of your Drift, which generally consists of ten unique directions and commands, you'll have a picture journal of your disorienting trek, filled with subjects you would not have ordinarily photographed.

What, exactly, will you be snapping with your iPhone camera on a typical Drift? Here are, for example, the first three instructions of a new drift that I just pulled up:

1. Walk south to the nearest intersection and take a picture facing west.
2. Walk until you see something inquisitive and take a picture of it.
3. Walk west for a block and look for something to repair and take a picture of it.

The photos you generate are saved within the app, and you have the option to share what you've found with fellow Drifters. As you can see from the non-geographically-specific directions, the Drift app works in any walkable city or town-- any urban area that is divided into blocks, essentially, and where it's not horrifyingly dangerous to wander around on foot. The app was designed by Broken City Labs through a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, and yet, despite being Canadian, Drift still managed to lead me on a rather enjoyable jaunt through the East Village of New York City in my test.

A video prepared by the designers at Broken City Lab shows how the app works in practice:

Drift: a tool for getting lost in familiar places from brokencitylab on Vimeo.

Drift is a relatively new app and as such is imperfect. Though the aim of Drift is beautiful, the app's design itself is not; the feature set is quite limited, with no option to change up your drift if you can't follow one of the instructions; there are no social functions to enable you to share your Drifts with friends.

Perhaps, however, that's the point: To be lost alone, to commune only with your city. Despite its flaws, Drift, with its "psychogeographic walks," represents a wonderfully inventive use of the modern smartphone's GPS, camera, and cellular connection to accomplish exactly what a smartphone seeks to prevent: Most smartphone-owning Americans, you know, will never know what it means to be truly lost while in transit ever again. Drift remedies that by getting you lost in a most beautiful way and, as great art should, helps you view your surroundings with a fresh perspective.

We can all benefit from a fresh Drift every once in awhile. Couldn't you?

You can download Drift for free here in the iTunes Store and read more about Drift at the Broken City Labs website.

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