Frank Swain has been going deaf since his 20s. Now he has hacked his hearing so he can listen in to the data that surrounds us.
I am walking through my north London neighbourhood on an unseasonably warm day in late autumn. I can hear birds tweeting in the trees, traffic prowling the back roads, children playing in gardens and Wi-Fi leaching from their homes. Against the familiar sounds of suburban life, it is somehow incongruous and appropriate at the same time.
As I approach Turnpike Lane tube station and descend to the underground platform, I catch the now familiar gurgle of the public Wi-Fi hub, as well as the staff network beside it. On board the train, these sounds fade into silence as we burrow into the tunnels leading to central London.
I have been able to hear these fields since last week. This wasn’t the result of a sudden mutation or years of transcendental meditation, but an upgrade to my hearing aids. With a grant from Nesta, the UK innovation charity, sound artist Daniel Jones and I built Phantom Terrains, an experimental tool for making Wi-Fi fields audible.
Our modern world is suffused with data. Since radio towers began climbing over towns and cities in the early 20th century, the air has grown thick with wireless communication, the platform on which radio, television, cellphones, satellite broadcasts, Wi-Fi, GPS, remote controls and hundreds of other technologies rely. And yet, despite wireless communication becoming a ubiquitous presence in modern life, the underlying infrastructure has remained largely invisible.
Every day, we use it to read the news, chat to friends, navigate through cities, post photos to our social networks and call for help. These systems make up a huge and integral part of our lives, but the signals that support them remain intangible. If you have ever wandered in circles to find a signal for your cellphone, you will know what I mean.
Phantom Terrains opens the door to this world to a small degree by tuning into these fields. Running on a hacked iPhone, the software exploits the inbuilt Wi-Fi sensor to pick up details about nearby fields: router name, signal strength, encryption and distance. This wasn’t easy. Reams of cryptic variables and numerical values had to be decoded by changing the settings of our test router and observing the effects.
It is an experimental platform which aims to answer this question by translating the characteristics of wireless networks into sound. By streaming this signal to a pair of hearing aids, the listener is able to hear the changing landscapes of data that surround them. Network identifiers, data rates and encryption modes are translated into sonic parameters, with familiar networks becoming recognizable by their auditory representations.
The project challenges the notion of assistive hearing technology as a prosthetic, re-imagining it as an enhancement that can surpass the ability of normal human hearing. 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.
“On a busy street, we may see over a hundred independent wireless access points within signal range,” says Jones. 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. 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.