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What Does Wi-Fi Sound Like?

A project called Phantom Terrains sniffs out signals and translates them into an augmented soundscape.

What Does Wi-Fi Sound Like?

Right now, you are drowning in radio waves, satellite beacons, cellphone transmissions, and digital signals. Thankfully, you can’t really tell. But what if there was a way to perceive the invisible fields of flowing information that surround us every day?

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What if you could actually hear Wi-Fi?

With Phantom Terrains, writer Frank Swain and sound artist Daniel Jones have created an experimental tool that translates Wi-Fi signals into soundscapes.

As the user walks through the city, a hacked iPhone sniffs out nearby Wi-Fi. The interface identifies traceable characteristics like locations and data rates, and translates everything into sound using a pre-programmed language of parameters. The sound is then transmitted to a modified hearing aid, creating sonic representations all around the user.

“On a busy street, we may see over a hundred independent wireless access points within signal range,” Jones tells New Scientist. “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 adds.

Data Visualization: Stefanie Posavec, Phantom Terrains

You can hear a sample of these sounds on the project website. It’s appropriately ambient and electronic. In action, the sounds originate from the direction of the router’s location, clicking more frequently as the signal strength increases. There is a particular low sound that signifies the security mode of the network. With enough practice, users will begin to recognize the specific pitches of particular broadcast channels. Like Swain, they would be listening to the “hum and crackle of invisible fields all day” and picking up the “familiar gurgle of the public Wi-Fi hub,” all blending into the normally audible.

Think of it as augmented hearing. In his New Scientist article, Swain, who has been losing his hearing since his 20s, explains how sound aids already sort of do this. Unlike glasses, which focus what is blurry, the aids’ interface is more complicated. As it picks up the audio emissions around a person, it sorts them into noise and sound, magnifying certain signals and pushing others way into the background.

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The Phantom Terrains tool takes what is normally thought of as a prosthetic to the next level. As the creators explain, “By using an audio interface to communicate data feeds rather than a visual one, Phantom Terrains explores hearing as a platform for augmented reality that can immerse us in continuous, dynamic streams of data.” Welcome to the age of technologically utilized synesthesia, enhancing human perception to fit our digital age.

About the author

Brooklyn based curator, writer and reporter.

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