This Colorblind Cyborg Artist Figured out How to Hear Colors

Is this the future?

Jun 19, 2019

What’s it like to listen to color? Thanks to a brain implant and an insect-like antenna, Neil Harbisson can answer that question. The colorblind artist wears a wearable device attached to his head that translates light frequencies into sound vibrations, transforming his experience of the world -- and of art.

Spanish-raised, Neil Harbisson was born in Northern Ireland with achromatopsia, a rare visual condition causing him to see the world in shades of grey. A decade ago, cyberneticist, Adam Montandon, began working with Harbisson to design a technology that allows the colorblind man to experience color - through sound.

The original device, designed in 2004, required Harbisson to wear headphones connected to a laptop. A series of operations allowed him to scrap all this, as a vibrating chip was placed first against, then inside his skull.

Today, Harbisson walks around with an insect-like antenna hovering over his head. The lightweight sensor, which he refers to as an “eyeborg,” syncs to an implant in his skull that translates the light frequencies of color hues into sound frequencies. "It detects the light's hue and converts it into a frequency I can hear as a note," explains Harbisson.

Although Harbisson still sees in blacks and whites, he hears in vivid colors. When Neil perceives colors in the world around him, he hears the blend of notes like a kind of colorful, futuristic sounding music. He shares, "For me, red isn't the color of passion as it is for many humans. It's a serene color. Violet, though, is savage to my ears."

He elaborates, "I like listening to Warhol and Rothko because their paintings produce clear notes. I can't listen to Da Vinci or Velázquez because they use closely related tones. They sound like the soundtrack for a horror film," he says.

Harbisson now works as an artist and uses his “sixth sense” to create paintings. Rather than converting color frequencies into sound, he translates songs and other types of audio into colors. "I painted a speech by Hitler and one by Martin Luther King, translating their sound into color. Then I asked people to guess which was which. They often got it wrong," he shares.

The antenna also allows him to hear colors beyond the normal human spectrum as well as infrared and ultraviolet. Harbisson can even take phone calls to his head after a recent upgrade made the “eyeborg” Bluetooth-enabled. "I can either connect to devices that are near me," he says, "or I can connect to the internet. So I can actually connect to anywhere in the world."

A Cyborg Artist

Neil Harbisson represents the first person in the world to become a government-recognized cyborg. He had to battle with the UK Passport Authority after they wouldn’t allow him to include the antenna in his passport photo. Harbisson received official cyborg status after he argued that the antenna wasn’t merely an accessory, but rather a part of his body.

He now identifies himself as a cyborg, and no longer feels 100% human. In his own words, “At the beginning, I felt that I was wearing a device, but slowly the software started to feel more and more as an extension of my senses. There was a point when I couldn’t differentiate the software from my brain.”

In 2010, Harbisson co­-founded the Cyborg Foundation with Moon Ribas, an international organization that helps humans become cyborgs, defends cyborg rights and promotes cyborg art.

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ALLISON MICHELLE DIENSTMAN, CONTRIBUTOR
Working from her laptop as a freelance writer, Allison lives as a digital nomad, exploring the world while sharing positivity and laughter. She is a lover of language, travel, music, and creativity with a degree in Chinese language and literature.

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