Stamen Design has collaborated with the Victoria & Albert Museum to bring you Big Glass Microphone.

Infrastructure is all around us. Some we can see, like roads, and some we can’t, like radio waves. Big Glass Microphone looks at the intersection between these two kinds of infrastructure by visualizing the vibrations in a five kilometer long fiber optic cable buried underneath the campus of Stanford University. The cable is mostly used for analyzing seismic waves as they pass through campus; we’re using it to look closer at activities closer to home.

Fiber optic cables are usually used for sending signals from one place to another. The vibrations that nearby moving objects cause in the cables are usually considered undesirable and filtered out as noise. But by turning the noise into signal, we can make inferences about things that are near that cable. The map above shows the location of the cable on the Stanford Campus in a giant figure-eight loop buried under the ground. Using Distributed Acoustic Sensing technology from Optasense, a company that installs this technology along railroads, pipelines, and other infrastructure, Big Glass Mic visualizes the distinct shapes that different kinds of events have on this fascinating incidental listening device.

The horizontal bands represent different frequency of vibration

Each horizontal band represents a different frequency of vibration: 0–0.6hz, 10–20hz and so on, up to 320 Hertz. The voiced speech of a typical adult male will have a fundamental frequency from 85 to 180 Hz, and that of a typical adult female from 165 to 255 Hz. The lowermost horizontal bands are sounds we can hear, and the uppermost bands are subsonic vibrations. The brighter the section of band, the more intense the vibration at that scale.

  • gallery-image
  • gallery-image

The time strip allows you to explore different spatial and temporal aspects of the data

You can click and drag your mouse over the time strip to explore different spatial and temporal aspects of the data. This view, which extends over the whole timeframe, is restricted to the corner of Campus Drive and Panama Street. See if you can visually locate the blobs that move back and forth along the topmost strip, at 0–0.6hz. Those are cars driving along the road, and the electromagnetic impulses from their engines are activating the cable.

Special thanks to Martin Karrenbach and John Williams at Optasense and and Eileen Martin at Stanford, the Stanford Exploration Project and Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, for recording  the seismic data and making it available to the project. We’re delighted that our friend Ryan Alexander led the development effort.

We hope you'll spend some time exploring Big Glass Mic. You can also read more about some things we found interesting in the data over on our blog