Wi-Fi is always around us, but it’s hard to picture it what it actually is–beyond the ugly black box, at least.
The designer Richard Vijgen, who runs an eponymous data visualization and communication design firm based in the Netherlands, has created a gorgeous woven tapestry that makes Wi-Fi’s covert movements visible and tangible. The tapestry, which is made of a combination of regular thread and thermochromic thread that changes color when it’s heated, is hooked up to a computer that detects all the Wi-Fi signals in a room. A panel behind the tapestry selectively heats it based on the Wi-Fi signals, causing the threads to change color.
To understand the flickering white patterns in the field of blue, it’s helpful to think of the tapestry as being divided up into the 13 channels of your typical 2.4 gigahertz Wi-Fi, with channel one along the left side and channel 13 along the right. When you see more white flickers in the middle, that means there are devices using the Wi-Fi on channels five, six, and seven. The more white, the more traffic–and in all likelihood, the slower your connection. “Rather than an annoyance, it becomes the pattern of the tapestry,” he says.
Vijgen previously visualized Wi-Fi and cell signals through an app called Architecture of Radio in 2015, but he was forced to rely on information in databases, which meant it was what he calls “a theoretical visualization.” Wi-Fi Tapestry, he says, is the next step in that line of research–a real-time data viz of Wi-Fi at work within a single room.
While looking for a way to create an ambient display for the visualization, he landed upon the tapestry because of its soft, domestic connotations–a far cry from how the digital is usually visualized. “The tapestry is a historic way that people have used to show visual patterns in a space for centuries,” he says.
But while it’s more dynamic than an unmoving tapestry, Wi-fi Tapestry‘s patterns transition very slowly–the video above shows its flickering patterns at four times its actual speed. Vijgen likens watching it to glancing out the window to gauge what the weather is like, as opposed to looking at a weather app. While a weather app will have symbols and numbers and data to offer, looking out the window gives you a much more passive, natural understanding of the climate. Looking at the tapestry, Vijgen says, “is like looking out the window and instead of the weather, seeing the technological atmosphere around us.”
Wi-fi Tapestry was on display as part of Dutch Design Week in October, and currently hangs in Vijgen’s studio, where it typically detects Vijgen’s phone and computer as well as signals from his neighbor’s wireless printer and thermostat. He hopes to install it in more locations–which would let him compare the patterns of a highly networked space like an office versus the patterns of a home.