Spiders are mostly blind, but their webs are sensitive to disturbances, which they detect with their legs. Now, scientists have created an audio-visual virtual reality take on this that converts a web’s vibrations to sounds we can hear, giving us an idea of what it might feel like to be a spider.
“The spider web can be viewed as an extension of the body of the spider, in that it lives within it, but also uses it as a sensor,” says Markus Buehler at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who presented the work at a virtual meeting of the American Chemical Society. “When you go into the virtual reality world and you dive inside the web, being able to hear what’s going on allows you to understand what you see.”
Because of differences in the length and tension of each strand of a spider’s web, they emit a different frequency when disturbed and can even be used to send out signals or communicate with other spiders when the web’s owner taps on the strands.
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Buehler’s team used laser imaging to create a 3D map of webs made by tropical tent-web spiders (Cyrtophora citricola). They identified each thread’s vibrating frequency through its size and elasticity, then converted those frequencies into ones that can be heard by humans. By piecing the visual and auditory layers together, users connect the sounds to the threads they see, mimicking a spider surveying its world, he says.
The team made some artistic decisions, such as using a synthesiser with a harp-like sound. Threads that are closer to the listener or connected to many others sound louder than others. For Buehler, who has spent hours listening to the noises the virtual webs make, they no longer just sound dissonant, but begin to have identifiable structure.
“We believe we have an accurate reflection of what the spider would ‘see’,” he says.