Wi-Fi is always hard to find. In moments of drought, we attempt to connect to unknown networks with dubious names. Other times, for whatever reason, there isn't even any Wi-Fi in reach—not even the supposedly omnipresent The Cloud. However, now that science is catching up with sci-fi's whimsical dreams (indoor skydiving anyone?), a device has been developed which could potentially help people seek out nearby Wi-Fi by hearing the sound it makes.
I listen to the noise of the city everyday, I hear you say, the last thing I need is to be able to hear the sound of the bloody internet too. Well, that isn’t everyone’s situation. This device was developed by a science writer called Frank Swain who is slowly going deaf and has had to use hearing aids since he was sixteen. He thought about the concept of hearing aids and how it magnifies stronger sounds and dulls certain frequencies and thought about how we could do the same for Wi-Fi.
The project, called Phantom Terrains, is a collaboration between Frank and a sound artist called Daniel Jones. It works through a wireless signal receiver on a hacked iPhone and that sends the sound to Frank’s Bluetooth connected hearing aids. They’ve just tested the first prototype after six months of work and have released audio of the signal which, as you can hear below, sounds like minimal techno. Personally, I’m hoping my internet provider sounds more glitch step.
I talked to Daniel about what Wi-Fi sounds like, why you’d want to hear the internet and whether this really is the future.
Noisey: So, how did the project come about?
Daniel: The seeds for Phantom Terrains were first sown by imagining how Frank’s hearing loss could be transformed from an impediment into an advantage. He wears hearing aids on a day-to-day basis, but why not harness them to enable him to hear things that ordinary people cannot? The idea was to treat these high-tech hearing aids as a kind of sonic interface, presenting information about the world around him using sound. And that led us to the first case study, enabling him to hear the invisible landscapes of wireless networks that surround us.
What made you want to hear them?
Mostly because they’re such a ubiquitous part of our cultural landscape, pervading pretty much every square foot of the urban environment. Yet they are something that we only become aware of the moment we want to get online. Wireless networks have a topography that is almost as complex as a city: some areas are buzzing with data of all different types, whereas stereotypically noisy places - the tube, for example - are moments of peace and quiet in terms of Wi-Fi. This makes for a particularly rich sensory interface, almost like walking through an invisible city overlaid onto our own. There are also straightforward and useful functions, like being able to hear the nearest open Wi-Fi network.
So how did you practically go about doing these things?
We wanted to release the project using standard domestic technology kit that Frank already has on his person each day, so that it wouldn’t require him to start carrying anything extra. We developed an app for an iPhone, to continuously scan for networks and relay the audio to his hearing aids via Bluetooth.
Didn’t you have to hack the technology?
Unfortunately, yes. Apple don’t permit apps like this, so we had to hack the iPhone using a technique known as “jailbreaking”, making use of the code and resources of the “black-hat” hacker community.
What about the audio itself?
We started to produce large-scale geographical visualizations of how Wi-Fi network landscapes change across a city, going on “data walks” through different areas of London and recording their wireless traces. Finally, we developed the “sonification” layer, looking at the best ways to map it into sound elements. What should be heard prominently within the audio, and what can be ignored? This continually monitors the incoming data, and generates the audio stream to reflect the strength of surrounding networks.
Do you think this project ties into the whole body modification trend?
It does, and this has always been a key motivation behind the project. This project is looking at ways in which sound can be ever present, used as a part of everyday routine. When something is heard continuously it can dramatically transform our perceptions. It effectively creates a new sense altogether. Hacking our hearing, in other words.
How would you describe the sound of the signals?
Because it’s intended to be heard continuously, it’s an unusual sound design challenge. It shouldn’t be so acoustically busy or intrusive to distract from everyday life, yet it should be sophisticated enough to portray the big variations that we see within the networks. After some trials, we’ve taken an approach that is quite minimal and electronic. Distant networks are heard as a gentle clicking, which ticks more frequently as the wearer gets closer. The collective effect is slightly eerie and otherworldly, like navigating through the interior of cyberspace.
How do you know what a good or bad wireless network sounds like?
We’ve focused on aspects of a Wi-Fi network that are particularly important when characterising it: its name (like “BTOpenZone” for example) is the primary way that we, as humans, identify a network; its data rate determines how quickly it can pass information around; its security mode determines whether it’s open to the public, or highly encrypted. All of these affect how a nearby network is heard in Phantom Terrains. The name of the network determines its signature melody, and security and data rate are heard as a lower tone that underscores the melody. A totally open network can be heard as a pure tone, indicating that it’s free to access.
Where else can you take this Phantom Terrains project?
Wireless networks are the project's first case study, to experiment how continuous sonification can transform a person's perception of the world. We're now looking at developing the project into a platform for general-purpose sonic representation. There's no reason why anything from the world around us couldn't be rendered audible, bringing out the microscopic rhythms of everyday life.
Dan Wilkinson always writes about weird nerd stuff and he's on Twitter.