Nickolay Lamm is a self-identified artist and researcher, who is making a career of transforming ordinary images into extraordinary visual displays of quantitative information, to borrow from Ed Tufte. We take a look at his transformation of New York, Chicago, Hollywood, and Washington D.C. through converting cellular network transmissions into visual overlays.

What would the world look like if cellular networks were visible? Cellular networks are approximate hexagonal cells of local cellular towers. Each tower has three sets of directional antennas aimed 120 degrees apart to cover the full circle. Each antenna is connected to a base station capable of receiving and transmitting over a number of frequencies. When combined with active switching of signals between nearby cells to optimize network quality, the ideal result is complete cellular coverage of any desired area. (Of course, real-world networks are not ideal, leading to dead zones and dropouts.)

Nicolay Lamm has created a series of illustrations imagining how various cities would appear if you could see cell phone signals. The positions for the cell towers are based on city cellular databases. The various cellular frequencies are assigned different colors, which when overlapped show their combined color (red and blue turns purple, for example). The illustration above shows Chicago and a bit of Lake Michigan where the antenna signal over the lake provides cellular coverage to boats in the region.

Lamm was guided in technical matters by two professors of electrical and computer engineering, Danilo Erricolo at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Fran Harackiewicz at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. They taught Lamm about the cellular network, with particularly focus on the cellular antennas radiation patterns.

When asked about the value of such visual interpretations, Professor Doug Harper, a specialist in visual sociology at Duquesne University said "I think he’s being responsible. He’s not making anything up here. He’s finding ways to present information – visual summaries, really. It’s at the immediate level." Immediate and quite beautiful.

View gallery - 5 images