Only a few years ago, Wi-Fi network were like tiny, scattered pools of connectivity separated by vast offline gulfs. Today, however, hotspots are everywhere — at home, at school, at the office; pouring out of every cafe and coffeeshop; even saturating shopping malls and city plazas. We’re basically swimming in an unseen ocean of overlapping Wi-Fi networks.
Design academics Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby coined the term “Hertzian Space” to describe the invisible and energetic — but very real — world of electromagnetic signals and their interactions with the physical realm. Drawing on that concept for a class on wearables called Critical Making, a team of students at the University of California Berkeley have created what they call “Hertzian Armor”: a wearable device that reacts to the Hertzian landscape, making visible the hidden contours of the Wi-Fi networks that surround the user.
Made of overlapping plates of neoprene laced with LEDs, the cyberpunk shoulderpad uses an Adafruit Wi-Fi module connected to a LilyPad Arduino to scan for nearby networks. The number of LEDs lit represents the strength of the received signals, while the color shifts through an RGB matrix to represent how secured or open the networks are. Red means high security (WPA2), green means low security (WEP/WPA), and blue means open access.
In a video demonstrating the project in action, the students show how their prototype cycles from red, green or blue into shades of purple, turquoise and white as they wander through campus encountering different mixes of networks — and turning a few heads.
The students write that they “wanted a wearable that would be bold enough to display at Burning Man or an event like Silicon Valley Fashion Week, but also simple enough to be worn around Berkeley.” And though a glowing shoulderpad is unlikely to become an everyday style for most of us, it certainly achieves their goal of “making the invisible visible.”
It also demonstrates how wearables can make us more aware of the seams where the digital and physical worlds intersect. The electromagnetic aspects of technology are often abstracted or obscured by screen-based user interfaces. As wireless technologies become more and more ubiquitous, creating more intuitive ways to visualize and map out Hertzian Space may become key to our ability to navigate a fully-connected world.
The students write: “Wi-Fi exists in the Hertzian space and is constantly around us. We use it almost every time we interact with an electronic device, but only understand it through the generic signal strength icon seen on most devices.”
Check out the video below to see Hertzian Armor in the wild.