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  • 03.02.11

Immaterials Uses a Wand of Lights to Reveal Hidden Wi-Fi Networks

Using a four-meter-tall lightbulb-studded stick and long-exposure photography, the designers “paint” a picture of network signal strength onto cityscapes.

Immaterials Uses a Wand of Lights to  Reveal Hidden Wi-Fi Networks

What does wi-fi look like? It may seem like a silly question, but not to Timo Arnall and his collaborators on the “Immaterials” project, which combines clever design and technology hacks to visualize the electronic networks humming and buzzing all around us. Their latest iteration “explores the invisible terrain of WiFi networks in urban spaces by light painting signal strength in long-exposure photographs”:

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Arnall and his team are familiar to readers of Co.Design: Previously, they’ve used the iPad as a light brush and visualized RFID networks. The wi-fi project mashes up all those previous techniques, which are a delightful fusion of low and high-tech. They built a four-meter-tall rod studded with 80 small lightbulbs and hooked it up to a network-strength sensor, creating a probe that would light up to a certain height depending on the strength of the wi-fi radio signal. Then they walked it through the deserted nighttime streets of Oslo, Norway, revealing a cross-section-in-light of the wi-fi radio networks that blanket the city.

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all images © Timo Arnall

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The designers’ wi-fi signal probe.

Arnall, Jørn Knutsen and Einar Sneve Martinussen got the idea for the project after visualizing much smaller RFID fields in a previous “Immaterials” film. “What if we built a huge light painting apparatus that could map out architectural and city-scale networks in the places and spaces they inhabited?” Arnall writes. “After a week of walking through urban spaces holding and photographing this instrument, we have a much better sense of the qualities of WiFi in urban spaces, its random crackles, bright and dim spots, its reaction to the massing of buildings, and its broad reach through open areas.”

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The ghostly cross-sections are as beautiful as their device is ingenious. I wonder if Timo and his team could paint these networks in 3D as well?

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.

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