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This Man Can Hear Wi-Fi

With the help of sound artist Daniel Jones, writer Frank Swain created a special hearing device that enables him to hear Wi-Fi signals.
Artist Nickolay Lamm's visualization project transformed Wi-Fi signals into a glorious rainbow wave.

Writer Frank Swain has been able to hear Wi-Fi signals for the past week, and no, it's not “the result of a sudden mutation or years of transcendental meditation,” he says. Swain wears a special hearing device that gives him the ability to translate wireless frequencies into sounds. Alongside sound artist Daniel Jones, Swain created Phantom Terrains in order to give those invisible data fields that surround us a bit more presence.


In his article for New Scientist, Swain explains that he has been losing his hearing since his 20s. Phantom Terrain not only gives him an interpretation of the colliding symphonies of Wi-Fi fields, it also contemplates the future role of assistive hearing devices. Maybe, he wonders, superhuman hearing isn't so far-fetched after all.

A map showing Swain's audio experiences walking around the BBC Broadcasting House

The map above, the first case study from Swain and Jones, shows a snakelike landscape (top graph) of the wireless network of of the BBC Broadcasting House, and the peaks and valleys of its corresponding soundscape (bottom graph). The 2:04 minute audio recording of a walk around the building features a peppering of clicks which grow faster according to signal strength and melodic “songs” from other routers's network names, broadcast channels, and security modes.

"The biggest challenge is human," explains Jones to Swain. "How can we create an auditory representation that is sufficiently sophisticated to express the richness and complexity of an ever-changing network infrastructure, yet unobtrusive enough to be overlaid on our normal sensory experience without being a distraction?"

It's the same question that challenges many of today's visual artists. For Nickolay Lamm, who worked on a Wi-Fi visualization project with astrobiologist M. Brown Vogel, Ph.D., the signals look like a layered rainbow cake. For Peter Jellitsch, a Wi-Fi signal sculpture resembled a stark polygonal mountain. To Timo ArnallEinar Sneve Martinussen, and Jørn Georg, Norway's Wi-Fi signals became glowing light paintings.


To learn more about Swain's experiences navigating Phantom Terrains, check out his original article on New Scientist.


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