After hacking his hearing aids, this man can hear Wi-Fi

What must this be like, we wonder?

Jun 23, 2020, 12:45 pm*

Tech

Marissa Fessenden 

Marissa Fessenden

We like to think that our senses are fairly acute. Humans aren’t as sharp as eagles, but we can see a respectably wide spectrum of colors, make out shapes in low light, and identify fairly distant objects. Our sense of hearing lets us appreciate a variety of music. As a species, we have a huge array of taste preferences — from fermented shark meat to cappuccino flavored potato chips. Our senses even include a bunch beyond the five common ones: Think of your sense of balance, pain perception, or ability to keep track of your body parts even when your eyes are closed.

Yet even with this wide array of senses, humans dream about more.

A few brave souls have turned those dreams into a reality, augmenting their senses to detect things that are normally invisible to humankind. Artists have already given us ideas about what Wi-Fi would look like, and now one man can report what it sounds like.

Frank Swain, who is losing his hearing, recently told New Scientist about the results of his decision to hack his hearing aids. By connecting the tiny devices to his smartphone, Swain gained the ability to move through a digitally-connected cityscape and hear the signals of wireless networks. That’s right: he can hear Wi-Fi.

Swain writes:

I am walking through my north London neighborhood on an unseasonably warm day in late autumn. I can hear birds tweeting in the trees, traffic prowling the back roads, children playing in gardens and Wi-Fi leaching from their homes. Against the familiar sounds of suburban life, it is somehow incongruous and appropriate at the same time.

As I approach Turnpike Lane tube station and descend to the underground platform, I catch the now familiar gurgle of the public Wi-Fi hub, as well as the staff network beside it. On board the train, these sounds fade into silence as we burrow into the tunnels leading to central London.

Swain’s hearing aids were already listening to and reinterpreting the soundscape around him. Adding a layer of Wi-Fi sound on top of that was fairly simple. He teamed up with sound artist Daniel Jones to build a tool they call Phantom Terrains. On the website, they write, “The project challenges the notion of assistive hearing technology as a prosthetic, re-imagining it as an enhancement that can surpass the ability of normal human hearing.”

Phantom Terrains’ auditory Wi-Fi isn’t the only effort to augment human senses currently being refined. Rich Lee, a biohacker who is losing his eyesight, has instead picked up the ability to sense magnetic fields and Wi-Fi by embedding small magnets in each of his ears. According to CNN, Lee hopes that these extra senses will help him navigate and maintain his physical orientation. “It’s almost erotic when you feel something totally unexpected when there was no sensation before,” he says. “You want to enquire and learn more. This is an adventure for me.”

Swain’s ability to hear Wi-Fi sense isn’t permanent, and hearing the “hum and crackle of invisible fields all day” will likely lose its charm. Nevertheless, his, Lee’s, and other experiments in body hacking lead one to wonder in what what other innovative and useful ways we can perceive our world.

Photo via Georgie Pauwels/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Nov 14, 2014, 9:19 am