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Hearing voices in your head usually isn't something you'd share in a casual comment to a psychiatrist, or to your doctor, or even to your closest friends. Most of us have had the experience of hearing something others around us haven't, just for a moment, and 3 to 10% of the population, experts believe, regularly experiences auditory hallucinations. (Not everyone believes what they hear.) But with help from Nesta, the British innovation charity, London resident Frank Swain and his friend sound artist Daniel Jones built Phantom Terrains, an experimental tool for making Wi-Fi fields audible.
Why Would Anyone Want To Listen To Wi-Fi?
Mr Swain has hacked into his hearing so he can hear not just birds singing and horns honking and people in conversation, but also the intensity of wi-fi signals everywhere he goes. As Swain walks past a hot spot, he hears a familiar gurgle. As he steps down into London's famous subway tube, the sound fades.
Phantom Terrains picks up field strength, router name, encryption, and distance. Picking up these variables is something just about any computer can do nowadays, but encoding them into an audible signal was a much more challenging feat. Swain told the British publication New Scientist:
"On a busy street, we may see over a hundred independent wireless access points within signal range. 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."
Hearing Aids Harder To Hack Than Visual Aids
Correcting defective vision, Swain opines, is a much easier task than amplifying hearing. Vision problems often can be corrected with a lens designed to bring light into focus.
Sorting useful sound from noise takes a great deal of programming, especially when the sounds are those that most people never get to hear.
The signals Phantom Terrains software converts into sound for Swain are a kind of social landscape of the world in which he lives. Residential wi-fi systems send out signals with low-level decoding. Commercial wi-fi systems are usually encoded. The numbers and strengths of signals tell Swain a lot about what is going on in the buildings he passes as he walks through London, although he does not have the ability to listen in on or hack individual Internet activities.