Seeing and hearing the unseeable and unhearable

BLDBLG wrote recently about a project called Satellite Lamps which aims to visualise the inherent inaccuracies and variations in GPS data. The project uses a network of lamps which dim and brighten with the accuracy of the GPS data they receive, compared to their fixed, known positions.

You’re basically watching the indirect effects of signal drift, transformed here into ambient mood lighting that acts secondarily as a graph of celestial geography.

I love to think about GPS from time to time. It’s one of those things that I use, consciously or not, almost every day. The computer in my pocket uses it to record the locations of the photographs I take, or to automatically append the current weather conditions to each diary entry I write. Or, obviously, I’ll use it to navigate to a new place, or to record the route of a run or bike ride.

Sometimes the signal is a few metres off and I’ll think, “Huh, that’s annoying.” But then I’ll briefly consider exactly what’s happening to make this data, accurate or not, appear on my pocket computer. And then I’ll think, “That’s fine. You can be a few metres off, little computer. It’s bananas that you’re even capable of this.”

Other times I’ll just get lost in a wiki-hole reading about exactly how GPS works (even though it’s fundamentally pretty simple). Incidentally, there’s a nicely presented guide to GPS associated with the above project available here.


Meanwhile, a friend wrote about another project with similar aims, this time allowing WiFi signals to be ‘heard’ as you meander through the streets of Brighton.

Wes Goatley’s WIRELESS-FIDELITY at Dorset Place in Brighton [is] a device which allows you to listen to the WiFi signals emitted around a city by giving each specific provider (BT, Virgin Media) a sonic signature. As you encounter that signal, a sound is played, and the result is a symphony of drones, voices and tones, which is not quite music, but almost.

Natalie Kane explains more in her blog post, but the simple idea of pairing known signals to specific recordings is a really neat way of making the intangible slightly more tangible.

Anyone who’s ever mucked around with radios – particularly shortwave – will know this weirdly physical sensation of moving a radio receiver around, noticing the subtle variations in signal strength. This process allows you to almost ‘see’ where the waves are.

Speaking of shortwave radio, this gets me thinking all about the peculiar way signals propagate over long distances thanks to variations in the ionosphere, and those long nights I’d stay up carefully tuning in to receive broadcasts from stations further and further away…


But that’s another wiki-hole for another day.