By Liz Stinson
article from Wired
Earlier this year, after a decade of slowly losing his hearing, Frank Swain found himself donning a pair of Starkey Halo hearing aids. The bluetooth-connected buds, which wirelessly stream audio from an iPhone, are some of the most technologically advanced on the market. It got Swain
, a writer for New Scientist
, thinking: Hearing aids have always been considered a band-aid to hearing loss, but what if they could be used for more than just bolstering the performance of failing ears? What if he could use them to hear things other humans were totally deaf to?
For a project called Phantom Terrains,
Swain and sound artist Daniel Jones
hacked the writer’s hearing aids in order to translate the unseen world of wi-fi signals into alien soundscapes. Walking through the streets, Swain is able to listen to the changing melodies of wireless networks and gather a supplemental layer of information about his surroundings inaudible to anyone but him. With Phantom Terrains
, Swain has effectively turned a disability into a superability.
The sound of each wireless network is based on a number of criteria. For example, the background layer—a crackling, clicking noise—reveals the density of networks in a particular area. The greater the number of networks, the denser the clicking. The data is geolocated, so the closer you get to any one router, the more frequent the clicking becomes; if it happens to be to your left, you’ll hear the sound in your left ear; to the right, and you’ll hear it in your right ear. In the foreground you hear a faint melody, like a song drifting into range from a distant radio. This is the network ID being translated to musical notes. Each letter and number elicits a different note, so while the mass of British Telecom routers might begin with the same pitch, the melodies will quickly change as the individual router numbers emerge.
Taken at face value, Phantom Terrains
is a clever enough idea. Like Steve Mann
and Timo Arnall
have illustrated with their light paintings, visualizing invisible streams of data can lead to beautiful outcomes. But Phantom Terrains
is more than spectacle—it gets to a bigger point about the way we interact with and comprehend information. Hearing, like seeing, is just another way to process the world around us. And it’s a highly efficient one at that.
Even more so than our eyes, our ears are adept at gathering and comprehending vast amounts of complex data quickly and easily. Just look at the failure of Google Glass—it simply asks too much of us. This makes sonification a smart way to process an unwieldy set of data, like Phantom Terrains
does with wi-fi. But it also hints at the rise of auditory interfaces. Swain believes we’re only begun to explore the benefit of audio with tools like Siri, Cortana and Amazon Echo. With the rise of high-bandwidth, low-power devices (like his Starkey hearing aids), it’s going to be easier than ever to have the constant hum of our seen and unseen digital lives—wi-fi signals, satellites, email or whatever data stream you prefer—in our ears at all times.