The Network Ensemble makes music out of the Wi-Fi signals that sit between our offline and online experiences.
In today’s ever-connected world, we are bombarded with copious amounts of invisible data and signals as they make their way from one handheld device to the next. Knowing that they exist is one thing, but actually acknowledging them is something a bit different. In an effort to do just that, a pair of Royal College of Art students has developed a project that they call the Network Ensemble, which sonically uncovers and amplifies the wireless networks the lie between our offline and online experiences in unique fashion.
The brainchild of Oliver Smith and Francesco Tacchini, the tool is tasked with converting airborne communication infrastructures, such as Wi-Fi, into audible tunes. In order to accomplish this, the Ensemble collects the unseeable information, analyzes it and then plays it back for the physical world to hear.
“The sounds of the Ensemble are in constant flux: the external peripherals form an autonomous orchestra, a sonification of slices of the local network layer, changing according to their own inherent logic but providing a melodic representation of the wider network topology,” the Maker duo writes.
The project, which is housed inside a black briefcase, positions the user as an explorer finding patterns, mapping the territory and experiencing an active, hidden world through sound from an autonomous orchestra comprised of external peripherals. These peripherals come in a variety of shapes, scopes and configurations including an antenna, a set of speakers, a MIDI keyboard and a series of solenoids that rhythmically tap the real-time data on their surroundings specific to that space, to name just a few.
For example, it is capable of playing harmonious tunes on a xylophone, a radiator and a MIDI keyboard using passing Wi-Fi signals, while emitting the Mickey Mouse ‘Band Concert’ film from a hacked Super 8 projector to act as the conductor.
“The Network Ensemble collects the communications local to it, pulling in the raw packets, the blocks of information that devices send between themselves, and analyzing them,” its creators explain. “It sorts them into six categories relating to the actions of the network or the actions on the network. These categories correspond to the ports on the outside of the device, into which external peripherals can be plugged.”
The gadget features two different modes — one that allows its users to employ the antenna and headphones to explore their territory like a metal detector searching for coins, and another that channels the network and performs the surrounding infrastructure.
The project itself was built using custom software, consisting of Node.js and Terminal-based Wireshark, that runs inside a computer within the case. An Arduino syncs with the host computer and channels the incoming network packets to the six different ports. Beyond that, the Network Ensemble is equipped with two other ports on its exterior, which are accessible even when closed. This enables the raw sounds of the network to be heard.
The students note that the Ensemble deals with the infrastructural layer of the Internet — the communication chatter of the objects that make up the networks we use, their technical ‘language’ and physical configuration — rather than personal data.
Intrigued? Head over to the project’s page to learn more, or watch it in action below!