Streams of wireless data surge from internet exchanges and cellphone relays, flowing from routers to our devices and back again. This saturation of data has become a ubiquitous part of modern life, yet it is completely invisible to us. What would it mean to develop an additional sense which makes us continuously attuned to the invisible data topographies that pervade the city streets?
Phantom Terrains 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.
Phantom Terrains is a prototype platform developed over a 6-month period using research funding from Nesta, the UK’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, and Starkey Hearing’s innovative Bluetooth-connected Halo hearing aids. It is an experimental foray into the concept of sound as a ubiquitous user interface, exploring novel ways in which information can be communicated through an always-on platform. We believe that such components will be core elements of personal computing in the future.
The map below visualises the wireless network landscape on a walk around BBC Broadcasting House. Stronger network signals are shown as wider shapes; the colour of each shape corresponds to the router’s broadcast channel (with white denoting modern 5Ghz routers), and the fill pattern denotes the network’s security mode.
Beneath the map is an audio recording of part of the same walk, as heard through the Phantom Terrains sonification interface. The sound of each network is heard originating from the router’s geographical location, producing clicks whose frequency rises with the signal strength — akin to a layered series of Geiger counters. Routers with particularly strong signals “sing” their network name (SSID), with pitch corresponding to the broadcast channel, and a lower sound denoting the network’s security mode.
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