Timo Arnall is something of a magician: The designer is very good at making the invisible visible. In the past six years, he’s turned Wi-Fi signals into light paintings, visualized RFID signals as as glowing drawings, and he’s gone behind the scenes at one of the world’s largest server farms. Now, in a new addition to his Immaterials series, he’s showing us what GPS looks like.
In Satellite Lamps, Anall, along with Jørn Knutsen and Einar Sneve Martinussen, investigates what he describes as “one of the most important, yet completely normalized, modern infrastructures.” It’s true—despite our obliviousness, GPS surrounds us everywhere we go. It’s what powers our most important apps; it’s the backbone of us orienting ourselves in the modern world.
The little blue circle you see when you open your maps app is the product of a network of satellites beaming waves down from nearly 12.5 thousand miles into the sky. As those satellites orbit the planet at fast speeds, their signals bob in and out of strength. To visualize the notoriously glitchy technology, Arnall and his team built lamps embedded with GPS receivers. As the strength of signal wavers in and out, the glowing orbs become brighter or dimmer. The stronger the signal, the brighter the lamp.
Over the course of two years, the designers set up shop in 50 different locations around Olso, Norway. They rigged their lights in open fields, in fjords, alongside underpasses and inside buildings and record what happened. In the atmospheric time lapse film, you watch as the lamps flicker in and out of brightness, as though a ghost were flitting in and out of proximity.
This is a physical representation of the finicky nature of satellites. It’s a visualization of those moments when you emerge from the subway or pass by a tall building and find yourself dealing with a disoriented blue dot. But it’s also more than that. It’s a way to instill awe in a process that we rarely think about, because truly, the fact that the phones in our pocket are in constant communication with something in space, really is pretty cool.