All images courtesy of Nickolay Lamm
Our phone obsession has reached a point where there are nearly more cell phones in use today than people living on the planet. Which means the world's cities and countryside are blanketed in an invisible network of radio signals bouncing around carrying our calls and text messages. Of course, the electromagnetic undercurrents of our hyper-connected society is something people very seldom think about, which is why artist Nickolay Lamm created these eye-catching visualizations of what cell phone signals would look like if you could see them.
Painting a picture of the unseen, abstract parts of life is Lamm's MO. He recently created these depictions of what wi-fi signals would look like if visual to the human eye. Now he's moved into the mobile realm. "We use our phones all the time yet don't really think about the cellular network which gives us the ability to call, text, and browse the web," Lamm told me.
So how do they work? The basic gist is that radio signals travel to and from base stations with antennas, traveling at varying frequencies. Each base station provides coverage to a geographical area, known as a cell. Antennas are connected to form a cell network that's structured like a mesh of hexagonal cells.
Lamm used data from antennasearch.com to approximate the number of stations in each city and imposed a theoretical hexagonal grid over Chicago and New York. He talked to a handful of professors in the electrical engineering field to make sure the representations were accurate—something of a contentious issue when the wi-fi images rippled through the blogosphere.
The captions under the illustrations below dive deeper into the technical details. They were written by Danilo Erricolo, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois, and Fran Harackiewicz, a professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale who teaches antenna theory and design.
Sector radiation patterns from two hypothetical base-station sites on the Capitol. The strongest signals are at the center of the radiation patterns.
Cell sites on top of buildings provide much wireless coverage for New York City. The hexagon pattern is a theoretical grid for antenna placement.
How cellular signals might appear in the Hollywood Hills if we could see the electromagnetic radiation at these frequencies as we can in the visible spectrum. The long-distance tower is radiating three channel combinations in three directions indicated by the red, yellow and blue radiation patterns. In the background are cell stations each of which have 3 sector antenna radiation patterns as well.
A regular, hexagonal grid of cellular base-station sites is conceptualized for Chicago, with stations at the corners of the hexagons. The area within each sector antenna radiation pattern has different users being assigned different frequencies and their signals combine to form a single perceived color in that instant.
Different channel combinations from sector to sector are indicated by different colors. The channel combinations shown are not static, but rather change rapidly in time as different users are assigned different channels. But, if you were to take a photo of these rapid changes, you’d likely see a wide array of colors as seen in the illustration.
Near the downtown area more users are likely to be found and the hexagonal cells are smaller to serve approximately the same numbers of users found in larger cells elsewhere. Antenna signals extending beyond the original cells provide coverage over part of Lake Michigan.
Coverage provided by a base station located at the Herbert C. Hoover Building in Washington D.C. Hexagonal cells and their related coverage are also shown in the background.
The area within each sector antenna has different users. Each user has a dedicated communication with the base station and each combination of these within a sector is represented by a different color. The communication with the base station is made possible by appropriately combining the frequencies within each band.