Trap Rooms

While finalizing my slides for tonight’s lecture at SCI-Arc, I was reading again about one of my favorite topics: trap streets, or deliberate cartographic errors introduced into a map so as to catch acts of copyright infringement by rival firms.

[Images: A “trap street” on Google Maps, documented by Luistxo eta Marije].

In other words, if a competitor’s map includes your “trap street”—a fictitious geographic feature that you’ve invented outright—then you (and your lawyers) will know that they’ve simply nicked your data, giving it a quick redesign and trying to pass it off as their own.

But this strategy of willful cartographic deception is not always limited to streets: there can be trap parks, trap ponds, trap buildings.

And trap rooms.

Earlier this week, I was reading about the rise of internal navigation apps for mobile phones, apps that will help you to find your way through otherwise bewildering internal environments. Large shopping malls, for instance, or unfamiliar subway stations.

From the New York Times:

A number of start-up companies are charting the interiors of shopping malls, convention centers and airports to keep mobile phone users from getting lost as they walk from the food court to the restroom. Some of their maps might even be able to locate cans of sardines in a sprawling grocery store.

Whichever company can upload the most floorplans before everyone else will, presumably, have quite an economic advantage. So how could you protect your proprietary map sets? What if you’re the only company in the world with access to maps of a certain convention center or sports stadium or new airport terminal—how could you keep a rival firm from simply jacking your cartography?

[Image: Photo by Laura Pedrick for The New York Times].

Introduce false information, perhaps: trap halls, trap stairs, trap attics, trap rooms. Nothing sinister—you don’t want people fleeing toward an emergency stairway that doesn’t exist in the event of a real-life fire—but why not an innocent janitorial closet somewhere or a freight elevator that no one could ever access in the first place? Why not a mysterious door to nowhere, or a small room that somehow appears to be within the very room you’re standing in?

It seems to be a mapping error—but it’s actually there for copyright protection. It’s a trap room.

On one level, I’m reminded of a minor detail from Joe Flood’s recent book The Fires, where we read that John O’Hagan, New York City’s Fire Commissioner, used to drive around town with blueprints of local buildings stored in the trunk of his car. If there was ever a fire in one of those structures, and his men would have to find their way through smoke-filled, confusing hallways, O’Hagan would have the maps. But is there a kind of Fire Department iPhone app? Could this be downloaded by everyday citizens and used in the event of emergency? What about a Seismic App for earthquake-prone cities like Los Angeles? Going into any building becomes a considerably safer thing to do, as your phone automagically downloads the relevant floorplans. Perhaps buildings known to be fire hazards, or known to be earthquake-unsafe, are somehow red-flagged as a warning before you step inside. (In such a context, the first person to become Mayor on foursquare of every earthquake-unsafe building in Los Angeles wins cult status amongst certain social groups).

But I’m also curious about less practical things, such as what cultural, even psychological, effects the presence of trap rooms might actually have. Games could be launched, the purpose of which is to find and occupy as many trap rooms as possible. New paranoias emerge, that the room featured above your apartment on the new app you just downloaded is not really there at all; it’s a trap room. You can’t sleep at night, worried that you actually have no neighbors, that you’re the last person on earth and every building around you is a dream. There are panic attacks and feelings of unreality, that no map can be trusted, that you’ve been living in a trap building all along. An Atlas of Trap Rooms is then released, with a foreword by Kevin Slavin.

These and other subtle geographies—trap architectures—awaiting detection all around us.

38 thoughts on “Trap Rooms”

  1. I wonder can you copyright your own building?

    I remember a kerfluffle on a street in Silver Spring, Maryland, where the company claimed they had the right to prevent people from taking pictures of their exteriors. Surely if that were true, then the insides of buildings would be even more licensable.

    I can also imagine grocery stores actually resisting the ability to quickly find an item via an app. They design the flow of the floors in a purposeful manner. Can the contents of my store be copyrighted by me?

  2. Doesn't it just take enough people with a crowd-sourcing GPS app, to upload the walkable surfaces in a large sprawling building? Videogames already generate detailed heatmaps of player paths, deaths, pauses, item pickups, quitting points, and other juicy information. What's to stop a clever app writer making a heatm-app for the real world, showing user routes, pauses, points where people get lost (need to check the map again) and even particularly photogenic locations.

    (Also, videogames are a rich source of impossible rooms, occupying the same physical (virtual) space, and making strategy guide writers cry.)

  3. I work in an academic library and you'd be surprised at how many grad students have no idea how to read a call number. I've often imagined a mobile telephone app where a patron could browse/search the library catalog and then be led to the book's location.

  4. The Google image shows a good example of a trap street done wrong. Looking at the map I see Lavender Walk and Eccles Road running right beside eachother, looking rather redundant, and I think OK, one of those must be fake. But instead it's the long unlabelled diagonal street from Lavender Hill to Battersea Rise.

    Why is this wrong? Well, think from the perspective of someone trying to follow the map. A nonexistent street that's also redundant (running right alongside another) isn't a big deal, because you can just take the one next to it that does exist and leads to the same place. Someone intending to take that unlabelled diagonal path though would be rather disoriented and annoyed at having to figure out an alternate route.

    Trap data is common in many fields, but as a rule you want to make sure it's not going to cause problems for users. (I used it often in a video game cheat database – look for "infinite time" cheats for games that have no time limits, or codes for nonexistent levels. Nobody's going to actually try to cheat at a level that doesn't even exist, but people copying the page verbatim don't even notice.)

  5. Copyright also incentivises plagiarism. If there is a penalty to admit being influenced by another's work (perfectly natural), then you are biased against admitting that influence, thus biased to pretending your work to be wholly original.

    The proper solution to all this is of course to abolish copyright.

  6. i remember another post of yours, where you talked about a secret access to a subway station, and an artist's installation of a door on the side of a building–how would you relate these 'real' traps to this post's 'virtual' traps? also, of course, there are the hidden existing roads, towns, etc, that don't show up on google maps (a friend of mine grew up in a 'nonexistant' russian town). it would be fascinating to analyze all these misalignments together.

  7. now i know why google maps said there were magical streets that existed (but i could never locate without the use of 4 wheel drive and a snorkel on my engine) and used them when it as giving me directions in South Carolina. or it was just outdated maps in my case…

  8. The original GI Joe action figures from the 1960s had a "trap thumb." Hasbro purposely put the thumbnail on the wrong side of the thumb. This was done to catch overseas toy manufacturers who regularly took molds directly from US products to create knockoffs.

  9. A couple of years ago I was collaborating with a friend on a sitcom script (sadly aborted)about a surrealistic, fantasy gentlemen's club. I had the idea that it would be so vast that the staff would need to use GPS to find their way around. And now my joke is becoming reality. I love the 21st century.

    Good call on Kraken, btw. An entertaining read with all kinds of psychogeographical fun.

  10. I've always wondered where the non-existent people ('seeds' as they are known) who are added to commercial mailing lists might live. Of course their mailing list addresses must just be their work address since that is their job, being an imaginary name on a post office box monitored for illicit mail by the mailing list owner. Now I know, seeds must live in trap streets constantly on the alert for intellectual property invaders, after all a man's intellectual property is his castle in the air.

  11. Seriously … there are people who need maps to navigate shopping malls or airports?

    Nice read though, large databases like IMDb or Discogs have similar errors to find people scraping their data.

  12. You made me want to study geomatics.

    Well to be honest, I considered that as my no. 2 option. Now it's my #1 option.

  13. This reminds me of "trap floors". Secret floors that appear in movie buildings in between floors.

    The 7 1/2th floor in Being John Malkovich

    Or in the classic 1946 Marks Brothers film "A Night in Casablanca" where the Nazi treasure is hidden on a secret floor in between two floors in the elevator shaft.

  14. There's a certain short section of 1-way street in Beaverton, OR that both Yahoo & Google maps both have marked as going the wrong way. I had never really thought about it, but I think it's a 'trap error' as well. It's short, but prominent, & almost impossible to turn down the wrong way.

  15. I lived in an block once that it turned out had a whole hidden "trap apartment". It was a small one-bedroom apt with all the fittings that appeared nowhere on the building's plans, except as a "storeroom".

    Apparently the builder had included it as a retirement favour for one of his long-standing employees, even the developer had no idea he'd done it. It was years before the owners corporation discovered the significance of apartment "3A" in the building, and that the local council knew nothing about it either!

  16. As a small child, I was convinced that all buildings had secret rooms and passageways, and that it was just a matter of finding them. If I had a building map that showed a room that wasn't there, I'd have to look for the hidden doorway, otherwise I'd be convinced that it was something similar to the prank that was played on an MIT student once. While he was away on a home visit, his dorm mates plastered over his doorway, painted it to match the hall, put a potted plant in front of it, and pretended to have never met him when he came back.

    As for the Google map at the top of your post: the fake road is gone from Google Maps now, and I have to wonder how plausible a deception it would have been in the first place, as the "street" would have cut across several apartment blocks that are evident on a closer look at the satellite view.

  17. This was one of the most exciting and indecribable articles I've read in a while. Thank you for all of your insight, it's truly refreshing.

    –an architecture student

  18. I was talking with our GIS guy about this concept of fake streets to serve as a watermark for map makers. He said he used to write his initials on his maps at a very high magnification and would be surprised how many people he would find who had used his work. At a company I used to work for, temp data enterers would routinely name small lakes in the northern territories after themselves and their pets.

  19. I previously learned about these when I noticed on Giggle Maps (;]) that the laneway through the parking lot of a local shopping mall was labelled Ovoviparous Way. A little research let me in on the secret. That was a few years ago.

    Yesterday, my wife told me about another one that she had spotted while house-hunting: Esquimalt Airport is situated in the back yard of a house on a residential street, across from a K-12 French school not far from our current rental. A peek at the edit history of said feature reveals that it has been removed and replaced repeatedly over the past 6 months or so. A prank, or an example of trap infrastructure?

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