Visualizing Electromagnetic Fields

December 7, 2015

Text and project by Luke Sturgeon and Shamik Ray.


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Visualizing Electromagnetic Fields. © Luke Sturgeon and Shamik Ray.

This project developed from a desire to address a growing concern within design and design research. As designers, scientists, and engineers, we often use and talk about hidden and invisible technologies.1 Yet how can we be sure that our own mental model of these technologies is accurate and is a mental model shared by others, most importantly our target audience?

In recent years the design industry—those who work primarily in the consumer market, producing products, services, and systems for human use—has actively promoted the use of “seamlessness” in design proposals and creative solutions. Despite relatively limited critical debate surrounding this approach, Matt Ratto’s Ethics of Seamless Infrastructures: Resources and Future Directions raises important questions about the act of deliberately making invisible—or hiding—many of the technologies that make a system or product function in a desired way. As a critical rejection of the “making invisible” of everyday technology, and that which Bruno Latour terms the intentional blackboxing of technology, this project was intended to do more than visualize data. The focus of the project was to enable communication and discussion around hi-tech and emerging technologies within the public domain, and to bridge the gap between design, engineering, and end-user of these “hidden” technologies.

As strong advocates of a learning-by-doing approach to work, it was through playful but deliberate visual experimentation that we developed a method for understanding and discussing the practical and material qualities of electromagnetic fields.2 Through experimentation we developed an understanding of both the photographic principles and limitations of light painting, and the powerful technologies available to us inside a mobile phone. Using the open-source programming language Processing3 and the open-source Ketai4 software library, we developed our own data visualization application by accessing realtime information from a phone’s magnetometer sensor. We described this custom drawing tool as a digital light-painting brush that works on any mobile phone, which only leaves a mark when it’s passing through an electromagnetic field.

The creation of a very simple software tool enabled us to experiment with different visual languages that might help us communicate and visualize the material qualities of the electromagnetic fields that can be detected around everyday objects—to navigate across the unfamiliar and invisible landscape of hertzian space.5 Shape, size, color, speed, depth, resolution, and time were all parameters that could be adjusted for each image. Through experimentation we arrived at a limited palette that could be successfully and repeatedly used to visualize and compare the electromagnetic field surrounding any everyday technological object.

The final images were published in a public Flickr group titled “The Secret Life of Everyday Objects,” a decision that allowed anyone around the globe to access and contribute to the project, participating in a common discussion around invisible phenomena and hidden technologies. In addition Vimeo was used to host a short video that documents the entire image-making process so that anyone can download the tools we designed and create their own images, contributing by optionally sharing on Flickr.6

This open approach to the project caught the attention of the Science Museum, London in late 2014, who approached us to run a participatory workshop. Taking our method of combining technological and photographic techniques, we allowed a small group of participants to explore the museum’s own collection of everyday objects that spans over a century of human innovation and inventions. Participants of the workshop had backgrounds that ranged from photography, design, and art to software engineering, social sciences, and business strategy. They all shared a common interest in both understanding more about this unseen technology, and experimenting with visual ways to communicate the invisible. Participants were paired and each given a camera, tripod, and blacked-out photography station. Through hands-on learning and collaboration they were about to develop thorough understanding of light painting and electromagnetic fields using our custom tool, within a few hours. Collectively producing over three hundred photographs, they were presented by each pair at the end of the day, describing their own methods, hacks, and experimentations alongside the visual output.

In the end, the project has resulted in a better understanding and case-study for the engagement of a wider audience in the conversations around technology, design and science. Through the careful representation of information in an accessible and comprehensible visual vocabulary, open discussions can be achieved across discipline and regardless of technical experience. Provoking conversation and new work, through the collaboration of different disciplines.

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Visualizing Electromagnetic Fields. © Luke Sturgeon and Shamik Ray.

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Visualizing Electromagnetic Fields. © Luke Sturgeon and Shamik Ray.

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Visualizing Electromagnetic Fields. © Luke Sturgeon and Shamik Ray.

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Visualizing Electromagnetic Fields. © Luke Sturgeon and Shamik Ray.

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Visualizing Electromagnetic Fields. © Luke Sturgeon and Shamik Ray.

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Visualizing Electromagnetic Fields. © Luke Sturgeon and Shamik Ray.

1 We define “invisible” data as “statistical information and phenomenological data that describes the material properties of a phenomena that cannot be seen naturally by the human eye.”
2 “It is only through a process of exploration and revelation that we are able to develop our ‘object-world’ understandings as designers, in order to assemble new perspectives on, and meanings around, emerging technology.” Timo Arnall, “Making Visible: Mediating the Material of Emerging Technology” (PhD diss., Oslo School of Architecture and Design, 2014).
3 “Processing Programming Language,” accessed January 4, 2016,
4 “Ketai Library for Processing,” accessed January 4, 2016,
5 Anthony Dunne, Hertzian Tales (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008).
6 “Visualizing Electromagnetic Fields,” accessed January 4, 2015,