Let me describe an app to you. Tell me what you think of it.
This app has absolutely no UI. When you open it, it shows a single static image. That image never changes.
Even though it’s a music-playing app, the app doesn’t use Apple’s background APIs. The moment you hit the home button or switch to another application, it stops working.
The app only works in a very specific location. If you try to use it anywhere other than the roughly 800-acre area it was designed for, whether you’re a continent away or just across the street, it won’t do anything. As described above, it doesn’t indicate this anywhere in the app’s UI, since it doesn’t have a UI to speak of.
There’s a nasty bug where if you make the grave mistake of pressing your phone’s power button while it’s active, the whole thing stops working and doesn’t do anything until you force quit and restart it.
The app was released in 2011, and isn’t even available on the App Store any more.
What I’m describing is an objectively shitty piece of software by most metrics. But it happens to be my single favorite iPhone app.
C E N T R A L P A R K (Listen to the light) is a “site-specific app-album”. If you’re in Central Park in NYC, it plays music. Different areas of the park have different grooves, different vibes, different musical elements. As you meander through the park, musical bits and pieces intermingle to create a work of music that’s unique to your specific journey. As you go back to the park and use the app over and over again, you start to get a feel for the soundscape of the park and the app.
It encourages you to engage with Central Park as a physical space, giving you meaningful intrinsic motivation to explore. It’s a deeply visceral and synesthestic experience. I haven’t been a huge fan of any of the GPS-based “run around in the real world!” mobile games I’ve played; I’ve also never really been one to get into generative music software. But this is an order of magnitude more interesting than pretty much anything else I’ve found on the App Store.
What I don’t understand is why there aren’t more experiences like this.
We’re living in a golden age of design. If you look at the cream of the crop on iOS, you’ll find a community of designers and developers firing on all cylinders, continually making it easier and more pleasant to do things with our phones. But in the grand scheme of things, most apps just treat your phone as an Internet-enabled touch screen.
The modern smartphone has multitouch, a microphone, accelerometers, a gyroscope, an always-on Internet connection, a GPS tracker, proximity detection for Bluetooth LE beacons, and all kinds of other novel input sensors and outputs. Who’s using any of it? We’re coming up with better and better ways to consume and create text and images. Better and better ways to play the same sort of games we’ve always played, only with touch screens instead of physical buttons. But we’re not, on the whole, experimenting. There’s no sense of play. While we’re not at a lack for truly great designers, we don’t have enough artists.
I’m not saying I want gimmicks for the sake of gimmicks. If you’re building a productivity app or a mobile client to access a web service, by all means keep on doing what you’re doing. God knows we don’t need a Twitter app that makes you chirp like a bird in order to tweet, or more interactions as awkward as Apple’s “shake to undo”.
But there needs to be at least some experimentation. The beauty of making things in 2014 is that the barrier to entry is at an unprecedented low. Rather than dealing with the traditional gallery gatekeepers, there’s nothing stopping artists from creating interesting works and putting them on the App Store for all to enjoy. And yet there isn’t — at least to my knowledge — an artistic fringe trying to make the most of the crazy, improbably powerful boxes we all keep in our pockets.
The fact remains that the most interesting app on my phone was created in 2011. This is a problem, and one we can fix.