Immaterials: light painting WiFi

“The complex technologies the networked city relies upon to produce its effects remain distressingly opaque, even to those exposed to them on a daily basis.” – Adam Greenfield (2009)

Immaterials: light painting WiFi film by Timo Arnall, Jørn Knutsen and Einar Sneve Martinussen.

This project explores the invisible terrain of WiFi networks in urban spaces by light painting signal strength in long-exposure photographs. A four-metre tall measuring rod with 80 points of light reveals cross-sections through WiFi networks using a photographic technique called light-painting.

20 December, 16.57

This builds on a technique that was invented for the 2009 film ‘Immaterials: the Ghost in the Field’ which probed the edges of the invisible fields that surround RFID readers and tags in the world. It also began a series of investigations into what Matt Jones richly summarised as ‘Immaterials’.

While we were mapping out tiny RFID fields, we wondered what it would be like to apply the light painting process to larger-scale fields of Bluetooth, WiFi, GSM and 3G. What if we built huge light painting apparatus that could map out architectural and city-scale networks in the places and spaces they inhabited? We’re still very interested in understanding radio and wireless networks as one of the substrates essential to contemporary design practice.

20 December, 16.46

We built the WiFi measuring rod, a 4-metre tall probe containing 80 lights that respond to the Received Signal Strength (RSSI) of a particular WiFi network. When we walk through architectural, urban spaces with this probe, while taking long-exposure photographs, we visualise the cross-sections, or strata, of WiFi signal strength, situated within photographic urban scenes. The cross-sections are an abstraction of WiFi signal strength, a line graph of RSSI across physical space. Although it can be used to determine actual signal strength at a given point, it is much more interesting as a way of seeing the overall pattern, the relative peaks and the troughs situated in the surrounding physical space.

20 December, 15.54

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. The resulting images show some of these qualities, and light painting is a brilliant medium for situating visualisations and data into physical world locations and situations.

Lots more visualisations and ‘making of’ pictures.

Einar writes more about this in an upcoming article called ‘Making material of the Networked City’ in Design Innovation for the Built Environment - Research by Design and the Renovation of Practice. There is also more detail on the project at the YOUrban weblog.

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156 Responses to Immaterials: light painting WiFi

  1. Jose 2 March 2011 at 4:36 #

    Very nice ;)

  2. Muhammad Waqas 2 March 2011 at 7:58 #

    Awesome concept, I still didnt get, how you did this

    Do you hold the light instrument, that your created, at the path of WiFi signals to transmit LED light from them?

    If we do it around the world, the streets, road, home and the whole world will become a painting :D

  3. Germán 2 March 2011 at 10:40 #

    Thank you very much for opening my eyes to the unseen. Many realities happening at the same time. Beautiful project.

  4. Eileen 3 March 2011 at 2:37 #

    Bravo. A great visualization. As humans we take so much for granted, both seen and unseen. But perhaps moreso the unseen. Though it needn’t be visible to be a useful medium, it is useful to see this expression of wi-fi signals… as well as beautiful. Good design is often invisible, though good designers are always looking for unseen details and ways to further understand and improve a construct. The art of what you created stands on its own. The utility of the expression might have further application. I’ve often noticed poor wi-fi installations that had ridiculous voids and gaps, within areas meant to be served. (an example is the beautiful tented Denver Airport in North America.) I suspect that handheld and laptop based test equipment is sometimes inadequate. A better understanding, even a library of various router’s typical patterns, with and without a variety of environmental objects, would be a great thing to have. If not a cadre of war-drivers toting your unique testing device….

  5. Jonathan LovattYoung 6 March 2011 at 13:43 #

    Stunning work folks. I’ve been playing around with the penki app from Berg. What camera settings did you use to achieve this?

  6. Florencia 6 March 2011 at 20:02 #

    Seriously this is sort of brilliant… I wish I could actually understand how you guys did this, but anyways, just watching it was something amazing. Good good job.

  7. F 6 March 2011 at 21:43 #

    Brilliant ! You might try to use the same process and combine multiple shots of the same place in order build a 3D matrix ?

  8. Frank Zweegers 7 March 2011 at 17:07 #

    Interesting read, indeed.

  9. Faizan 10 March 2011 at 16:23 #

    It really is awesome, and the technique is pretty simple and logical as described by the author himself (for folks who don’t understand how it works let me explain in simple lingo) he took a simple probe which is equipped with about 80 LED’s and used it to access a specific (say his own) wifi network, the rod actually responds to the received signal strength, means as the signal gets stronger more LED’s will lit (for example: it blinks 80 LED’s when the signal is full and 40 LED’s when the signal is half the strength of full) and then used the camera technique known as light painting which actually utilizes long exposure time in order to create light patterns. I hope you understand now :o)

  10. Bill B. 19 March 2011 at 1:55 #

    When I saw the video on YouTube, it immediately made me think of Edward Tufte, and his methods of meaningfully, clearly and visually quantifying data and explaining the effects of an event.

    From that thought, I have a proposal that could be interesting (and challenging) for this project. Due to the overwhelming crisis in Japan, and the lingering, unseen and potentially deadly threat of radiation, could this concept be used to visually express differing levels of radioactive waves? The idea is: any group of people would be rightfully concerned (understatement) regarding radiation, but how can you express the nature of this problem as rationally as possible in a way that the majority can understand?

    Clearly there are hazards involved, and a light source bearing vehicle with a video-equipped tracking vehicle would be wise considering the circumstances. This type of attempt could create a powerful visual quantification of something that is as abstract as the air we breathe, but the effects of which are rightfully feared. Can this project replace fear with understanding, and then rational problem solving based on the visual interpretation?

    No matter what, the light painting project as-is is a very thought provoking project about our not so tangible environment!

  11. poiuy 20 March 2011 at 16:52 #

    Have you considered using a GPS data logger to record the WIFI strength at each spot, and then overlay that data over Google Map satellite images, or 3D maps ? You can build a 3D model of that if you don’t just collect data linearly. I wonder what it will look like if color is used to indicate signal strength instead of column height. May be some one has some data collected in their war drives.

  12. Chris G 22 March 2011 at 7:15 #

    This is so awesome, I wish I had thought of something like this. Light painting is so cool, you guys just took it to a whole new level - light painting a digital terrain! Sweet!

  13. Delquez Williams 25 March 2011 at 2:10 #

    wow so amazing how the future science holds so many forms of unbelievable art

  14. andrew 2 July 2011 at 1:48 #

    Very beautiful, but I think your conclusion—that you “have a much better sense of the qualities of WiFi in urban spaces…” is a huge stretch. This a fun, cool project, and it is a beautiful medium, but you’re taking yourself too seriously. It’s only art.

  15. Derek 27 July 2011 at 20:51 #

    Have you seen the British Telecom (BT) Home Hub adverts?

    I think they are paying a homage to this project.

  16. Jeff 11 September 2011 at 5:07 #

    Hello! This is a very beautiful project :) I am a hobbyist I hope to re-create and walk around the neighborhood to visualize wifi.

    Is the schematics and program available for free?

    Thanks so much and more insights for your team.

  17. Sor 14 December 2011 at 15:19 #

    This is awesome!!!

  18. Kekstr 18 December 2011 at 22:24 #

    Cool - would like to get a copy of the schematics and build one !

  19. cantenna 20 December 2011 at 5:05 #

    It would be awesome if we could see wifi waves! Now you’ve got me hooked on it.

  20. Steve 20 January 2012 at 22:04 #

    ‘Illuminating’ - In every sense of the word.

  21. Jeff 23 May 2012 at 16:42 #

    schematics please :)

  22. Eadie 16 August 2012 at 4:39 #

    Interesting idea and nice to see… but what about all these invisible microwaves constantly beaming through our bodies? What are they doing to us? Now we can actually see what we’re invisibly exposed to on a daily basis…

  23. MtheB 5 April 2013 at 5:38 #

    You ask a very valid question Eadie. There is mounting research that has found that cellular and other microwave signals are proving to be a serious health hazard. The WHO has classified microwave radiation as a Class 2B carcinogen, meaning it is possible that it is a carcinogen. This is due to the way RF microwave signals affect the human body at the cellular level. There is, also, evidence that this form of radiation can affect biorhythms, such as the bodies ability to control the heart. Like cigarette smoke, it is best to limit your exposure to microwave radiation as much as possible. The WHO hasn’t upgraded the status yet, but if the research is accurate, then it is only a matter of time before they do.

  24. Silin 6 May 2013 at 18:26 #

    so awesome.i’d like to make one and walk around my campus to make a photo like that


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