Computational Landscape Architecture

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo, via FNN/Colossal].

In 2017, researchers attending the annual Cable-Tec Expo presented a paper looking at the effect certain trees can have on wireless-signal propagation in the landscape.

In “North America in general,” the researchers wrote, “large swathes of geography are dominated by trees and other foliage which, depending on seasonal growth and longitude, can interrupt a good many LOS [line of sight] apertures between BS [a base station] and client and present performance challenges.”

That is to say, parts of North America are heavily forested enough that the landscape itself has a negative effect on signal performance, including domestic and regional WiFi.

Their presentation included a graph analyzing the effects that particular tree species—pine, spruce, maple—can have on wireless signals. “The impact of deciduous and conifer trees (under gusty wind conditions) suggest that the leaf density from the conifer more frequently produces heavy link losses and these,” they explain.

In other words, for the sake of signals, plant deciduous.

[Image: From “Can a Fixed Wireless Last 100m Connection Really Compete with a Wired Connection and Will 5G Really Enable this Opportunity?”]

What interests me here is the possibility that we might someday begin landscaping our suburbs, our corporate campuses, our urban business parks, according to which species of vegetation are less likely to block WiFi.

There is already a move toward xeriscaping, for example—or planting indigenous species tolerant of arid climates in cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles—but what about WiFi-scaping, landscapes sown specifically for their electromagnetic-propagation effects?

One of my favorite studies of the last decade looked at whether trees planted around a fuel-storage depot in England known as Buncefield might have inadvertently caused a massive gas explosion. In this case, though, a site’s landscaping might instead cause data-propagation errors.

You can imagine, for example, vindictive foreign governments purposefully surrounding an American embassy with trees unpermissive of signal propagation, even deliberately donating specific indoor plant species known for their negative effects on electromagnetic signals. A kind of living, vegetative Faraday cage.

Hostile houseplant-gifting networks. Like the plot of some future David Cronenberg film.

[Image: Lucian Freud, “Interior in Paddington” (1951), via Tate Britain].

In any case, this brings to mind many things.

A recent study published in the MIT Technology Review, for example, suggested that WiFi could be used to spy on human movements inside architecture. The paper documents how researchers used WiFi “to work out the position, actions, and movement of individuals” inside otherwise sealed rooms.

It’s worth recalling the use of WiFi as a burglar alarm, whereby unexpected human intruders can be detected when their bodies perturb the local WiFi field. Is that someone walking toward you in the dark…? Your router might see them before you do, as their movement cause bulges and malformations in your home’s WiFi.

The more relevant implication, however, is that you could potentially use WiFi to spy on movements in the broader landscape. Deciduous forests would be easier than coniferous, it seems.

You could soak a forest in electromagnetic signals—yes, I know this is not the greatest idea—and measure those signals’ reflection to count, say, active birds, beetles, badgers, or other participants in the wilderness. It’s WiFi as a tool for ecological analysis: you set up a router and watch as its signals reverberate through the forests and fields. Animal radar.

Finally, consider a study published last year that suggested WiFi signals could be turned into a computational device. According to researchers Philipp del Hougne and Geoffroy Lerose, you can “perform analog computation with Wi-Fi waves reverberating in a room.”

Read their paper to find out more, but what seems so interesting in the present context is the idea that forested landscapes could be grown to cultivate their WiFi computational ability. Like botanical pinball machines, you could design, plant, and grow entire forests based on their ability to reflect future WiFi signals in very specific ways, artificial landscapes destined to perform computational tasks.

A bitcoin forest. WiFi forestry.

Or forest supercomputers, pruned for their ability to plumb the mathematical sublime.

(Thanks to Jameson Zimmer for the tip re: WiFI and trees. Earlier on BLDGBLOG: The Design Forest of the Sacred Grove, Forest Tone, and many others.)

Incidental Detection

[Image: Aura WiFi burglar alarm].

A new home and office alarm system detects disturbances in WiFi to warn residents of potential burglars. The Aura, as it’s known, picks up “disruptions in the invisible radio waves that make up your home’s Wi-Fi network” to determine if someone—or perhaps something—is sneaking around inside, uninvited.

When Cognitive Systems, the Canadian tech firm behind Aura, began discussing the project publicly back in 2015, they suggested that WiFi is basically an invisible shape inside your home, and that “distortions” or deformations in that shape can be detected and responded to. There is your home’s interior; then there is the electromagnetic geometry of WiFi that fills your home’s interior.

Although the alarm is capable of differentiating between an adult human being and, say, a loose piece of paper blowing down a hallway or a house plant swinging in the evening breeze, the system can apparently be thrown off by complicated architectural layouts. Perhaps, then, in the techno-supernatural future, particular homes will find themselves unavoidably haunted by nonexistent burglars, as alarms are unable to stop ringing due to an unusual arrangement of halls and closets. A new Gothic of electromagnetic effects, where the alarm is detecting the house itself.

Of course, if devices like the Aura take off, it will almost undoubtedly lead to crafty burglars developing WiFi-shape-spoofing tools as ways to camouflage their entry into, and movement through, other people’s homes. A black market economy of signal-reflection and WiFi-dazzling clothing takes off, allowing humans to move like stealth airplanes through complex electromagnetic environments, undetected. The opposite of this, perhaps.

Stories of one thing unexpectedly being used to detect the presence of another have always fascinated me. In this case, it’s just WiFi being used to pick up potential criminal trespass, but, in other examples, we’ve seen GPS satellites being repurposed as a giant dark matter detector in space. As if vast clouds of invisible matter, through which the Earth is “constantly crashing,” might set off some sort of planetary-scale burglar alarm.

[Image: GPS satellites, via MIT Technology Review].

There are so many examples of this sort of thing. Recall, for instance, that subatomic particles (or, rather, their absence) can be used to map otherwise inaccessible architectural interiors, or that an experiment in the 1930s designed “to find out what was causing the static that interfered with trans-Atlantic telephone calls” inadvertently kicked off the field of radio astronomy, or the fact that tree rings can be used to detect both sunspots and earthquakes. Or even that LIGO, the gravitational-waves detector, at one point was accidentally being set off by wolves, or that the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11 was picked up as an earthquake by regional seismographs.

Imagine scrambling all this; you wake up tomorrow morning to find that WiFi burglar alarms are detecting dark matter walls in space, telephone calls are picking up signs of unknown rooms and corridors hidden in the buildings all around you, and scientists outside studying wolves in the American wild have found evidence of celestial phenomena in the creatures’ tracking collars.

In fact, I’m tangentially reminded of the internet subgenre of what could be called things inadvertently captured on wildlife cameras—ghostly forms in the wilderness, lost children, “unexplained” lights. These are trail cameras that were placed there to track wildlife, either for science or for sport, but then these other things allegedly popped up, instead.

[Image: Via Outdoor Life].

I suppose this often absurd, Photoshop-prone field of purportedly occult photography comes about as close as you can to a new technological folklore, devising myths of encounter as picked up by systems originally installed to look for something else.

Yet it leaves me wondering what the “spooky trail cam” genre might produce when mixed with WiFi-enabled home burglar alarms, dark matter detectors in space, etc. etc.

In any case, the CBC has a great write-up about the Aura, if you want to learn more.