UK science writer Frank Swain has been losing his hearing since his 20s. Two years ago he had his first hearing aids fitted, and since then he’s been experimenting with all kinds of new technologies that test the limits of what humans are capable of listening to. Last week, he became the first person in the world to hear Wi-Fi signals.
Working with UK-based sound artist, Daniel Jones, Swain hacked his digital hearing aids to create an iPhone-powered device that makes Wi-Fi fields audible to a human. They’ve called the device Phantom Terrains, and it works by tuning into the basic information carried by Wi-Fi fields, such as the name of the router, the strength of the signal, its distance away from the device, and the level of encryption.
“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,” Swain writes in a New Scientist feature. “This audio is streamed constantly to a pair of hearing aids donated by US developer Starkey. The extra sound layer is blended with the normal output of the hearing aids; it simply becomes part of my soundscape. So long as I carry my phone with me, I will always be able to hear Wi-Fi.”
Not only does the Phantom Terrains technology reveal the strange, otherworldly, and ever-present sounds of Wi-Fi signals that perhaps certain animals have been listening in on this whole time, but it can collect information about trends in Wi-Fi use wherever it goes. For example, Swain reports that the Wi-Fi in residential areas was controlled by low-security routers, but when he explored commercial districts, they were filled with highly encrypted routers to dolled out higher bandwidths.
Swain tested the device by recorded everything he heard as he wandered around the Camberwell Green area of south London, and through the BBC Broadcasting House. He then had the information visualised by Stefanie Posavec, a London-based designer who specialises in making sense of all kinds of data.
Just as UK-based artist Timo Arnall last year created a device that scans for local wireless networks and then translates the signals into coloured LED lights, Posavec was able to create a map revealing the locations of routers, high bandwidth signals and low bandwidth signals, and how how far a signal could be heard.
Swain is now trying to figure out where else he can go with his ‘superhuman’ hearing abilities – what other kinds of sounds could he add before it all becomes a bit too much?
"The biggest challenge is human," Jones tells him in his New Scientist feature. “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?”