Man Hears Wi-Fi Via Hacked Hearing Aids


In the latest issue of New Scientist, freelance science writer Frank Swain contributes an intriguing autobiographical report. Swain, who has been slowly going deaf since his 20s, recently completed an experimental software hack, which works with iPhones and hearing aids to turn local Wi-Fi signals into audible soundscapes.

Swain worked with sound artist Daniel Jones to create a hack, called Phantom Terrains. The system uses the iPhone’s Wi-Fi sensors to analyze data from nearby fields. The data is then decoded and turned into sound patterns that are wirelessly transmitted to Swain’s customized hearing aids.


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So long as he has his iPhone in his pocket, Swain gets a kind of aural map blended in with the normal output of the hearing aids. Distant signals are interpreted as background clicks that vary with proximity, like a Geiger counter. Closer and more powerful signals sing out their own network ID information in a looped melody.

“Unlike glasses, which simply bring the world into focus, digital hearing aids strive to recreate the soundscape, amplifying useful sound and suppressing noise,” Swain writes. “In essence, I am listening to a computer’s interpretation of the soundscape…. I am intrigued to see how far this editorialization of my hearing can be pushed. If I have to spend my life listening to an interpretative version of the world, what elements could I add?”

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Because the system allows Swain to actually hear technical distinctions between Wi-Fi networks, and locate their source, Phantom Terrains represents a new sort of notional cartography. For instance, Swain has found that residential areas tend to be full of low-security routers, where commercial districts have highly encrypted routers broadcasting with much higher bandwidth.

Swain’s design partner Jones said the Phantom Terrains system can extract meaningful data from hundreds of wireless access points at once: “Just as the architecture of nearby buildings gives insight to their origin and purpose, we can begin to understand the social world by examining the network landscape.”

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