If you ever hooked up to the Internet before the 2000s, you’ll probably remember that ear-piercing screech emitted by the dial-up modem. These days, the only noise you’ll hear will be the tapping of keys as you punch in the passcode. But not for Frank Swain, the man who can hear Wi-Fi wherever he goes. No, he doesn’t have a rare genetic mutation, but he does have souped-up hearing aids and some very clever software.
Swain has been losing his hearing since his 20s and was fitted with hearing aids two years ago. But his interest did not lie in recreating the soundscape that was gradually fading; he wanted to be able to listen to something that we can’t hear: wireless communication.
To achieve this, science writer Swain buddied up with sound artist Daniel Jones. Using a grant from a UK innovation charity, the duo eventually built Phantom Terrains, a tool that makes Wi-Fi audible. The software, which runs on a hacked iPhone, works by tuning into wireless communication fields. Using the inbuilt Wi-Fi sensor, the software is able to pick up details such as router name, encryption modes and distance from the device.
“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 later: distant signals click and pop like hits on a Geiger counter, while the strongest bleat their network ID in a looped melody,” Swain writes in an essay in New Scientist. “The audio is streamed constantly to a pair of hearing aids. 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.”
And what does Wi-Fi sound like? Check it out here:
Taking this one step further, Swain wandered around south London, collecting tons of data as he went, and had the information visualized by London-based designer Stefanie Posavec. The resulting map tells us where routers are, their bandwith and encryption level. From this data, Swain was able to see that residential areas are dominated by low-security routers, whereas commercial districts were filled with highly encrypted routers. Here’s what it looked like:
Although there are currently no treatments that can bring Swain’s hearing back, this new technology allows him to hear things in our world that no one else can, and he’s already thinking of other sounds that he could add to his auditory repertoire. How long he can tolerate all of this extra noise, he wonders, remains to be seen.