YOUrban wifi man
A glowing rod signals the WiFi strength as designers in Oslo map the digital world around us.

Much as our ancestors may have envisioned the spirit world permeating and flowing through our mundane existence, we can only imagine the complex web of digital signals that penetrate and surround us. Yet a team of designers in Norway have shed some light on that mystery by giving us a beautiful visual representation of WiFi signals in Oslo. For their ‘Light Painting WiFi’ project, Timo Arnall, Jorn Knutsen, and Einar Sneve Martinussen constructed a four meter tall rod covered in blinking lights. The stronger the WiFi signal around the rod, the higher the blinking lights would rise. By taking slow-exposure video footage of the rod, the team captured a truly stunning look at just one of the many digital signals in our lives. You have to watch their video below. This is such a wonderfully simple and brilliant idea, it makes me wonder what the physical world would really look like if we could only see all the digital communication humanity creates everyday.

The Light Painting WiFi project is a collaboration between designers at the Institute of Design in the Oslo School of Architecture & Design and the BERG design firm in London. It’s part of a larger exploration of ‘Immaterials’, intangible phenomena such as WiFi, mobile phone coverage, and broadcast signals, that should shape how architects and urban planners design the cities of the future. The team hopes to provide not just a fun video for us to watch, but insight for modern designers struggling to account for the growing prominence of digital communication. The four meter rod, covered in 80 points of light is a reference to the sighting poles used by surveyors for centuries. Perhaps videos like this will become a similar tool for helping us update our physical world to better fit with our digital lives.

If you want to learn more about the Light Painting WiFi project, Martinussen gives a great behind-the-scenes look at YOUrban, an umbrella project at the Insitute of Design concerned with social media, design, and cities. You can also see some of the most amazing still photos of the WiFi rod in action on Timo Arnall’s flickr page. Here’s my favorite:

Urban Wifi
The signal from inside an 1890s apartment leaks into the streets of Oslo.

While the technology behind light painting and the WiFi rod aren’t particularly remarkable, the implications from this project surely are. It’s easy to forget how much information is floating around us every second. We truly live in a hybridization of the physical and digital worlds. As our interest in that blend moves from mostly physical to mostly digital, it will become increasingly important for us to understand the rivers (signals), reservoirs (server farms), and ports (mobile devices, implants, etc) that we use to navigate between those realities. Woe be to the modern urban planner who forgets to account for electronic communication, or the fashion stylist who forgets to plan for smart phones. As with so many fields, design must race to keep itself on top of the digital trends that are invading our physical lives. Hopefully more projects like Light Painting WiFi will arise to give us the compelling insight we need.

[image and video credits: Timo Arnall, Jorn Knutsen, Einar Sneve Martinussen]
[sources: YOUrban, Nearfield.org (Arnall)]