City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.


Following on from our recent 'post-occupancy evaulation' of the State Library of Queensland's wi-fi (see previous post) in my role at Arup, I thought I'd share a couple of outputs. (Thanks to Tory Jones of the State Library of Queensland for permission).

One of the ideas I've been exploring relates to how urban industry – in the widest sense of the word – in the knowledge economy is often invisible, at least immediately and in situ. Whereas urban industry would once have produced thick plumes of smoke or deafening sheets of sound, today's information-rich environments – like the State Library of Queensland, or a contemporary office – are places of still, quiet production, with few sensory side-effects. We see people everywhere, faces lit by their open laptops, yet no evidence of their production. They could be using Facebook, Photoshop, Excel or Processing.


I've been developing a few ideas for exploring this industrial activity, which I hope to share here later, but the post-occupancy work on the Library's wi-fi involved creating a few representations of the service; a service which is all but invisible. Outside of monitoring the server logs, the wi-fi can only be perceived through the presence of users themselves, or of course via devices that detect wi-fi.


So as well as photo-essays, videos and in-depth interviews with users, and relating to this idea of making the invisible, visible, I mapped the strength of the wi-fi signal across levels 1 and 2 of the Library, the primary areas that the Library’s wi-fi is used. By taking readings across the floor of both levels, using standard wi-fi-enabled consumer equipment in order to mimic the conditions for the average user (in this case a MacBook laptop and a Nokia e65 mobile phone), I was able to construct a snapshot of the wi-fi signal strength across the Library.



I then articulated this set of readings as a basic 3D model in SketchUp, with peaks representing good wi-fi signal strength (4 bars, for example) and troughs representing poor wi-fi signal strength (no bars/no connection, or intermittently 1 bar). Each ‘bar’ defined a level in the 3D model (1 bar = 1 metre, roughly). This gives a sense of the wi-fi as a shape, with a physical form. Although literally misleading, it helps to understand wi-fi as a discrete phenomenon, via a form of translation.



While this model is not intended to be totally accurate – wi-fi signals may change in different atmospheric conditions, and perceived signal strength will vary depending on the equipment used – it does convey a sense of the overall ‘shape’ of the wi-fi, as if we could perceive it in physical form. Sensing the wi-fi like this is almost akin to dowsing – detecting the presence of unseen forces – and mimics the sensation of users attempting to discern where the wi-fi signal is strong.




The model was initially overlaid onto a floorplan of level 1, and subsequently scaled up to sit over a snapshot of the site from Google Earth. When comparing with the built form, we can explain the strong signal over the north-western egress of the Knowledge Walk. Through our observations at the Library, we saw that users have figured out that this is a good spot – one of the 3 wireless access points currently on that floor is located in the nearby meeting rooms, not that users would know this. The presence of the ‘bench’ extruded from the wall provides useful affordances for users too, almost suggesting it’s a good spot to sit and access the wi-fi (although again, we suspect that is accidental coincidence of design). Similarly, the floor-to-ceiling windows from meeting rooms and open corridor leading outside means there is minimal concrete to block the signal. So this 3D model helps suggest a correlation between use of the space, the shape of the space, and the strong wi-fi signal.



Following the central spine of the wi-fi model through towards the south-eastern edge, we can see how the wi-fi ‘leaks out’ of this end of the building, through the open end of the Knowledge Walk outside onto the concourse in-between the Library and the building destined to be The Edge. Elsewhere, thick concrete mitigates against wi-fi spreading far, unfortunately including the café and the fabulous deck areas on the river, where the signal falls off sharply (currently).



I allocated the SketchUp model a skin of netting, in a nod towards the Cedric Price-designed aviary at London Zoo. This seemed to me a similar structure, and suggests that 'wi-fi cloud' might actually feel like a containing volume – a net of wi-fi, as if seen from a user’s or bird’s point-of-view.




Formally, the result is hardly elegant, and bears little relation to the AIA award-winning structure by Donovan Hill/Peddle Thorp. (Incidentally, it’s been a great pleasure to work with Timothy Hill on this and other projects recently). The sharp angles and abrupt faces are accidents of the crude construction in SketchUp and the simplicity in my measurements. I should probably take it into 3D Studio Max or something, to render it with more graceful curves, or a material that would more properly represent the qualities of radio waves – perhaps something like Diller+Scofidio's Blur Building.

There's a full set of screengrabs here, here's a fly-through animation, and here's the original SketchUp model. I don't want to overplay the significance of this approach – it was simply one of several methods for expressing the presence of wi-fi in the Library, and partly just sketching out loud …

Constructing another tangent on the wi-fi, I was struck by how users adopted the Infozone space – where the wi-fi is primarily located – and the furniture provided for them. The low desks, small tables, various chairs, benches etc. afford numerous variations for wi-fi users, and sure enough people drape themselves all over them.

Discussions with Timothy Hill indicated how the design of furniture across the Infozone was intended to, in his words, “break up the traditional anthropomorphic relationship between the user and their laptop”, based on observations of how intimately people actually relate themselves to their laptops. Hill had noted how people rest the laptop on their knees, lie down with it, use it in bed, curl up around it on the sofa, and so on. So the fixtures and fittings in the Infozone were intended to suggest this intimacy – in common with the ‘domestic’ touches in the design of the Library in general – and provide a wide variety of options as to how to use a laptop in the space.

As well as the hundreds of photos I took in the space, I decided to do a few sketches of the more interesting positions, which I suggested might work something like a aircraft identification manual or compendium yoga positions perhaps. With the latter in mind, I was tempted to name a few, such as "The perch", "The front crawl", "The huddle", "The sandwich", "Battleships", “Reverse Battleships", “The Horse", "Side saddle", "Lotus", "The NASA control room", "The occasional-table hug" and so on.

Below, a few of the quick sketches I did, illustrating some of these positions:






Wi-fi shapes photoset [Flickr]
Wi-fi shape animation [Vimeo]
State Library of Queensland, Brisbane, Donovan Hill/Peddle Thorp
Post-occupancy evaulations of wi-fi
State Library of Queensland


15 responses to “Sketchbook: Wi-fi structures and people shapes”

  1. Matt Avatar

    Dan – this is lovely work. Inspiring.


  2. Peter Marquis-Kyle Avatar

    Thanks for sharing your findings and thoughts, Dan.
    I’m one of those toilers in the knowledge economy, and SLQ is my local library of choice. On my visit yesterday the level 1 spaces were full of people just like your delightful sketches. I’m struck by the difference in atmosphere before and after the refurbishment — due in part, perhaps, to those invisible wireless waves.
    Thanks for the reminder of the Regents Park aviary, a structure that asks to be shown in a fly-through video. But turning your wifi readings into a bird cage didn’t work for me. It cost me a few minutes to get my bearings, and to confirm that we had both found the weak signal in Tognini’s behind that concrete wall. Showing the contours of signal strength (isobars?) over a floor plan of each level would make the information more readable. I’m thinking of heat maps, synoptic weather charts, good old topo maps…
    I’d like to know more about your recommendations, but understand that this might not be disclosable…


  3. Andy Polaine Avatar

    What a great project a write-up. I loved the sketches too – people seem to completely forget their bodies when engrossed in technology. I made a Lost in Text Flickr pool along similar lines:


  4. Sheona Avatar

    I, too, feel inspired by this process of correlating the invisible signals with the humans connected to them. I really like your sketches but think that these some of these postures are possibly ‘anti-yoga’…:-)
    The sketches reminded me of the little drawings that INCITE researcher, Katrina Jungnickel, does for her wifi studies:
    [ sketches in flickr ]
    Your blog is great.


  5. Jeremy Yuille Avatar

    Dan, really awesome work! Your sketches are inspiring (as is Tim Hill’s description of the athropo-deconstructing architecture)
    Immediate thoughts are: whats’ the anticipated outcomes of this study?, and you could imagine this is a war-driving cyborg’s perception of the SLQ 🙂
    also – I was thinking about your algorithm for generating the volume, and, while I understand the premise of the flat plane, wondered what it’d look like if you plotted level 1 wifi strength as negative heights and level 2 as positive heights outward from the level 2 floorplate plane..? (hard to describe in text!)
    while this’d give you a way of reading the diagram for each level, it may also pull the resulting volume away from the architectonic and more toward an expression of the building’s ‘urban industry shadow’.
    Or, like a cloud, not a building.


  6. meneer Avatar

    very ‘dunne and raby’
    yet less speculative, nicely grounded
    beautiful sketches too


  7. Ed M Avatar
    Ed M

    How did you get the data for the floor plan? Did you recreate it in sketchup? Or is it simply a image file taken from the library website, scaled , and overlayed in the sketchup model?


  8. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks everyone. I’ll add a few notes in a moment. As for the latter, Ed, I’ve been working with the Library, and they gave me a floorplan which I then dropped into Sketchup (and then changed to the Google Earth image). But I think it’s also available from their website.


  9. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks again everyone – much appreciated. A few specific responses.
    Peter – thanks. The wi-fi structure isn’t intended to be a particularly useful response. More just an evocation. I’ve made some specific responses on things like ‘wayfinding the wi-fi’ in the report (much of which should be shareable, by the way), such as responsive signage etc. However, most of the time, the wi-fi conveys itself through the presence of people, which is actually a really nice solution. In my 60-odd surveys with users, few had any issues finding where it was/wasn’t. A heat map would certainly be a more useful approach if we did want to pursue making it clearer though, and I’d seen a similar project doing that here: (via
    Sheona, thanks for the note on Kat’s work. It’s great stuff, which I referred to a bit.
    And Jeremy and I have exchanged a few follow-up emails on this. His idea is a nice one in terms of rendering the ‘shadow’ another way. In terms of outcomes, they range across a whole bunch of things – amenities for wi-fi users, possible expansions, integration with strategy, installations based on wi-fi activity etc. – and hopefully we’ll be able to share more of those in future.


  10. Jarrett Avatar

    Interesting, and useful to SLQ and its customers.
    Now if they’d just thought of it at the time, those Google Street View camera-utes could have been carrying little wi-fi signal testers, yielding a GoogEarth layer of free wi-fi signal strength. Hard to update though, just as Street View is.
    Do you suspect that the poor signal in the cafe is intentional? There seems to be some interesting cultural content about different suburbs encoded in the frequency of wi-fi enabled cafes. In Newtown/Erskineville, where I lived last year, wi-fi is an advertised feature of many cafes. In southern Surry Hills where I live now, nobody seems to advertise it. There’s something here about how the feel-good message of free wi-fi collides its tendency to fill up your cafe with low-paying long-term customers. Surry Hills seems increasingly to be about a level of creative glamour that is inconsistent with working in cafes. Or at least it was until the market crashed.
    A similar analysis of power points, and its intersection with wi-fi signals, would also be enlightening, at least pending the invention of the truly long-life laptop battery.


  11. Jarrett Avatar

    Also, those “laptop yoga” sketches suggest an idea for a collaboration with a yoga/Pilates specialist or perhaps a physical therapist. I imagine them as illustrations in a little book called something like “The Yoga of Laptops.”
    The thesis would be that we are practicing yoga all the time, well or badly, in daily life. (Buddhists say the same thing about meditation.) I could imagine a series of these drawings along with little callouts that show which muscles are being worked, which are being weakened, and which are just being gradually injured.
    Someday you’ll hit it big with this and there will be posters of your sketches in the Qantas Club, so people can recognise and learn from the laptop-asanas on display all around them. It’s a logical extension of those little airline magazine guides on how to exercise in flight. 😉


  12. Dee Avatar

    Nice! I loved the wireframe models


  13. Danny Avatar

    V nice Dan. I think your sketch idea has just solved my problem with research ethics and using photos to show user engagement. Brilliant… I will certainly reference your work.
    Also wanting to try something similar correlating usage data & signal strength for a post-oc here at Uni Canberra.
    btw. have you seen wifi-light -painting from Immaterial
    ‘Immaterials: light painting WiFi film by Timo Arnall, Jørn Knutsen and Einar Sneve Martinussen’


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