Sky Ear (2004)

A floating glowing cloud of LED-embedded balloons that listens out for electromagnetic waves in the sky.

Electromagnetic fields (EMF) exist just about everywhere in our atmosphere. Urban locations in particular have a diverse and vibrant hertzian culture, with mobile phone calls overlapping text messages, combining television broadcasts with garage door openers that interfere with radio transmissions and wireless laptops, etc., not to mention the natural EMF that already exists in the atmosphere. This project is a spatial investigation of some of these phenomena.

Sky Ear is a one-night event in which a glowing "cloud" of mobile phones and helium balloons is released into the air so that people can dial into the cloud and listen to the sounds of the sky.

Sky Ear floating above Greenwich Park

The cloud consists of 1000 extra-large helium balloons that each contain 6 ultra-bright LEDs (which mix to make millions of colours). The balloons can communicate with each other via infra-red; this allows them to send signals to create larger patterns across the entire Sky Ear cloud as they respond to the electromagnetic environment (created by distant storms, mobile phones, police and ambulance radios, television broadcasts, etc.).

Different Sky Ear modes change the way it responds to EMF

Using mobile phones people can listen to the actual sounds up high, the electromagnetic sounds of the sky as well as streams of "whistlers" and "spherics" (atmospheric electromagnetic phenomena that are the audible equivalent of the Northern Lights). Of course, the action of calling the cloud changes the electromagnetic environment inside and causes the balloons to vary in brightness and colour.

For a detailed description of the project history, references, design and build process, experiments, as well as flights please see Sky Ear - Final Report & Documentation [PDF].

Sky Ear setup and mode changing
Sky Ear setup and mode changing

Sky Ear is a non-rigid carbon-fibre "cloud", embedded with one thousand glowing helium balloons and several dozen mobile phones. The balloons contain miniature sensor circuits that respond to electromagnetic fields, particularly those of mobile phones. When activated, the sensor circuits co-ordinate to cause ultra-bright coloured LEDs to illuminate. The 30m cloud glows and flickers brightly as it floats across the sky.

Sky Ear taking off at Greenwich Park

As people using phones at ground-level call into the cloud (flying up to 100m above them) they are able to listen to distant natural electromagnetic sounds of the sky (including whistlers and spherics). Their mobile phone calls change the local hertzian topography; these disturbances in the electromagnetic fields inside the cloud alter the glow patterns of that part of the balloon cloud. Feedback within the sensor network creates ripples of light reminiscent of rumbling thunder and flashes of lightning.

Sky Ear flying above Greenwich Park

Sky Ear shows both how a natural invisible electromagnetism pervades our environment and also how our mobile phone calls and text messages delicately affect the new and existing electromagnetic fields.

Sky Ear above the audience

Sky Ear flew in various forms including BartFest 2004, London, UK; Belluard Bollwerk Festival, Fribourg, Switzerland, 2004; Greenwich Park, National Maritime Museum, London, UK, 2004; Transmediale, Berlin, Germany, 2005

And it has appeared in documentary form at VIPER, Basel, Switzerland; AVATAR, London, UK; Japan Media Arts Festival, Tokyo, Japan

Sky Ear in flight

Sky Ear was financially assisted by The Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology. Thanks also to Seth Garlock, Senseinate, Inc. for electronics and Rolf Pixley, Anomalous Research, for software development. Carbon fibre tubing for framework by RBJ Plastics, UK.

Sky Ear team

Many people contributed to the design & development, the logistics, the test flights, etc. etc. In particular I would like to thank the following:

  • Seth Garlock, Senseinate Inc. for many uncompensated months of electronics design, troubleshooting and redesign; also for the invention, design and development of the B2B network that allows the balloons to communicate; and Rolf Pixley, for colour-mixing algorithms and software development
  • Louise Hayward, curator at the National Maritime Museum, for taking care of all the event details that make the project possible
  • Susan Haque (aka "Mum"), for handling all sorts of logistical issues, brainstorming and accounting
  • David Crookes, Fluid Structures Engineers and Technical Designers, for providing invaluable structural advice
  • Abi Abdolwahabi, Bartlett School of Architecture, for design tutorials during detail fabrication and for being a constant calming influence
  • Shade Abdul, for excellent assistance during the final phase of the project
  • Phil Ayres, Sixteen Makers, for CADCAM advice, design and fabrication
  • Mike Graham, Professor of Unsteady Aerodynamics, Aeronautics Department, Imperial College London, for advice on getting Sky Ear to fly
  • Robin Catchpole, Senior astronomer, Royal Observatory Greenwich, for being the first person intrigued by the project and for making sure that it could happen at the National Maritime Museum Greenwich; also for acute scientific critique during the design phase
  • Mo-Ling Chui, media culture design corp., for incomparable PR and event advice
  • Jules, Johann, Claire, Ting, Ting's mate, Ben Pirt, Tom & Becky for helping out during the very first test flight
  • Gabby Shawcross, Daniel Maloney, Guvenc Topcuoglu, pilots on the second test flight
  • Josephine Pletts, co-writer of the first three grant applications for Sky Ear
  • Jacques Perron, Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology, for continual encouragement and enthusiasm about Sky Ear
  • Ai Hasegawa, for design and logistical advice and for helping out in different ways every day of the entire project (particularly on the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth test flights...)

Finally, I would also like to thank the following for crucial support in the form of sponsorship or sponsorship-in-kind: