Losing your hearing can be a frighteningly isolating experience. But instead of trying to replace the audible landscape he began losing at age 20, science writer Frank Swain decided to find a way to listen in on something humans can't hear: the hum of Wi-Fi all around us.
In this essay for New Scientist, Swain talks about how he worked with sound designer Daniel Jones to build a tool that makes Wi-Fi audible. The project, named Phantom Terrains, works by translating the language of a wireless network into sounds. Each Wi-Fi element—router names, data rates, encryption modes—are assigned their own sonic tones, which are then streamed to Swain's phone where he can pick them up through his hearing aids:
The strength of the signal, direction, name and security level on these are translated into an audio stream made up of a foreground and background layer: distant signals click and pop like hits on a Geiger counter, while the strongest bleat their network ID in a looped melody.
So what does the internet sound like? Here's a walk that Swain took with the various Wi-Fi networks mapped along the way. Stronger network signals are shown as wider shapes, the different colors denote the router's broadcast channel, and the pattern references the security level:
Now here's what the same walk sounds like:
While the cosmic blips and static pops are certainly beautiful (and somewhat creepy at the same time), there are some larger implications for why this kind of work could be important. Swain equates it to a kind of auditory "prosthetic" which can actually enhance the range of normal hearing, transforming him into a kind of superhuman who can actually "hear" the landscape in a way that most people will never experience. We don't normally think of VR as including sound, but this is augmented reality for the ear. [New Scientist]
Top image: Artistic depiction of what Wi-Fi signals would look like if we could see them, by Nickolay Lamm