Early this summer Frank Swain approached Starkey with an intriguing request. A hearing aid wearer for several years, the London-based science writer was working on a project to "hack" his hearing aids to hear Wi-Fi networks and wanted to utilize Starkey Halo for the task.
We recently talked to Swain and learned more about the project, his hearing loss, and his inspiration for wanting to hear Wi-Fi fields.
When did you first start experiencing hearing loss? How did you decide to have your hearing tested and be fitted for hearing aids?
I first started noticing hearing loss in my mid-twenties, but it was another five years before it became problematic enough that I felt I needed hearing aids. There's still a stigma surrounding them, and I'm no more immune to that than anyone else, of course.
Can you give us a brief explanation of the Phantom Terrains project and what inspired it?
Phantom Terrains is a project that allows me to hear Wi-Fi fields, as a background layer to the everyday function of my hearing aids. The system uses a hacked iPhone to translate data about surrounding Wi-Fi fields into continuous sound, and this is streamed to a pair of Starkey Halos. It builds on work done previously by artists such as Timo Arnall and Christina Kubisch exploring the world of electromagnetic fields.
How did you and Daniel Jones originally come up with the idea to "hack your hearing" so you could hear Wi-Fi?
Hearing aids don't give you a faithful account of the world, they make lots of decisions about what they think you'd like to hear, boosting useful sound and suppressing noise. I was interested in exploring this editorialisation of my hearing, to see what elements I could add.
Did you consider "hacking" other types of platforms?
No, it was always going to be about hacking my hearing. The goal is to explore what can be built within the emerging architecture of wireless hearing devices. With a smartphone in my pocket I'm constantly in touch with the world, and wireless hearing aids are the final link in that chain connecting the internet to my ears. So effectively I have something like Google Glass for my ears. The question was: what novel things can we build in this space?
How long do you think you could continue to stream Wi-Fi as sound before it became a nuisance?
Nobody knows yet - it's one of the things Daniel and I are hoping to find out. I suspect that if it does become a nuisance, it will be because our implementation – how we made it sound – is wrong. The brain is wonderfully plastic; I don't think there's any reason to suspect it couldn't accommodate sounds for things that don't really have a sound.
By your account in the New Scientist, hearing aids improved your hearing but also made you wonder if they could help you hear other things as well, maybe even things that normal hearing can't pick up. Can you expand on this?
Hearing aids already do a lot of things that normal hearing does not – pitch shifting voices, connecting wirelessly to music players, and so forth. I don't see why we should be content to limit our aspirations to regular human hearing. If the technology can go beyond that, well, let's see how far it can go. Hearing devices can be augmentations, instead of just prosthetics.
Your project has been picked up and covered by popular publications like Mashable, Popular Mechanics, and the Daily Mail. Are you surprised by the attention it has received?
One of the reasons we chose to sonify Wi-Fi rather than something more useful was pragmatism – people innately understand that there is Wi-Fi everywhere, and yet it's something that we don't really have a great sense of. So we always expected that people would be interested in revealing this hidden architecture. The project articulates something we've all wondered at the back of our heads.
What future projects would you like to do?
I'm interested to see what else we can add to my hearing, but we're also interested in using this system to reveal more about the Wi-Fi world. Stef Posavec's incredible visualizations have really captured people's imagination, and help us to see and understand these invisible terrains.
Anything else you'd like to add?
We're hugely grateful for the support we've received – from Nesta, the UK charity that funded the project, and of course to Starkey, who supplied the devices. We couldn't have done it without this support.
Photo courtesy of Dave Stock/davestockphoto.co.uk and appeared originally in the New Scientist.