Did you know that colors can be seen as well as heard? Well, now you do, thanks to 31-year-old Neil Harbisson, a color blind artist who spent years looking for a way of experiencing the colors of the world around him. For the past 10 years, Neil has been wearing an external electronic eye that picks up the frequencies of the colors before him and converts them into sound vibrations that he can hear. Initially he wore the device outside his head. But later, the London-based artist convinced surgeons to implant the chip int his skull to be able to perceive more intricate colors.
The idea for the device came about when Neil heard a cybernetics talk by computer scientist Adam Montandon at Dartington College of Arts in 2003. The pair then collaborated to create the device and Neil ended up memorizing various frequencies so he could recognize colors. So he still couldn’t see the colors, he could now hear and identify them. Neil, who was born with achromatopsia (a rare condition that allows him to see only black or white), said during a talk in 2012: “For me the sky is always grey, flowers are always grey and television is black and white.”
“But since the age of 21 instead of seeing color I can hear color. So I’ve been hearing color all the time for eight years so I find it completely normal to hear it all the time. At the start I had to memorize the names you have for each color and the notes but after some time all this information became a perception and I didn’t have to think about the notes and after some time this became a feeling. I started to have favorite colors and I started to dream in color.”
At this point, Neil felt that the software and his brain had united, because in his dreams it wasn’t the software creating the electronic sounds, but his brain. That’s when the device became ‘an extension of his senses’ and he started to feel like a cyborg. So he decided to have the device implanted permanently. Neil and Adam began to look for medics who could carry out the implantation. Their search was over last year when they convinced a doctor and anaplastologist from Catalonia to do it.
The cyborg antenna, or ‘eyeborg’ that Neil now wears is like a long tube with an audio input on one end that is implanted at back of his skull. At the other end is a camera that ‘sees’ the colors before they are transformed to sound. Because every color has a different vibration, Neil is able to distinguish between different images, paintings and faces (each of them has a distinct sound).
Photo: Vimeo video caption
In fact, he can even hear colors that the human eye cannot perceive, like infrared and ultraviolet. And the reverse is also true – he is able to make color paintings of the voices of personalities like Hitler and Martin Luther King. He doesn’t even have to actually look at the colors. The images can be sent directly from his mobile phone to a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connector inside the chip. It’s actually unbelievable – Neil is the first person in the world who can experience an image without actually looking at it.
The implantation of the chip was done in a series of surgeries that took place between December and March in Barcelona. The eyeborg is now fully functional and was unveiled to the world on Monday. “This announcement is not the launch of a new product and it is not the presentation of new technology,” he said. “It is the presentation of a new body part that will allow us to extend our senses in unimaginable ways.” Neil said that the eyeborg has now become such an integral part of his identity that he even convinced authorities to let him take his passport photograph with it.
What’s really great about the eyeborg is not what it can do, but its future potential. Just think of the possibilities – Neil is connecting with devices now, but if more people get the implant, skull-to-skull communication might just be possible. To know more about the eyeborg, you can watch Neil’s amazing presentation at the PSFK Conference, where he demonstrated how each color actually sounds. He identifies colors that he can’t see at all, and even shows us the sounds of mundane objects like grass and a dirty sock. It’s too fascinating to miss!