Neil Harbisson was colorblind, until he strapped on an "eyeborg" and connected his mind's vision to what he was hearing.
Until the age of 11, Neil Harbisson, 31, didn’t know that what he was seeing weren’t colors but shades of grey. He was finally diagnosed with achromatopsia, a rare and incurable vision disorder.
When studying music composition in London, he met a cybernetic fan who agreed to help him extend his sense of vision. Together they’ve created the “eyeborg,” a device mounted to the head that provides the ability to perceive colors trough hearing.
GAZETA WYBORCZA: What is exactly the eyeborg?
NEIL HARBISSON: The model I’m using now consists of a head-mounted camera that senses colors in front of me and translates colors in real-time into sound waves, thanks to a chip pressed to the back of my head, I can now hear colors trough the bone, like dolphins. This year I’m undergoing a first-of-its-kind surgery to place the chip inside my head.
Colors and sounds have something in common: the color of a light wave corresponds to an audio frequency. The electronic eye translates the color it is pointed at into the corresponding sound. It can also transform the saturation to the volume: I can hear vivid red stronger than pale green.
At first, I was translating colors as if I was studying a new language. At some point there was a click between the software and my brain. Then, the emotions came. In my dreams I was looking at the sky and I could hear a very clear Cis.
To see only in black and white, is it like turning off the colors in TV?
For you it’s always “turning off” – a loss. Maybe it’s you who cannot see the world in black and white? I used to hate colors; sooner or later they appear in every conversation: the Red Cross, green tea. I had to smell the glass to know what I was drinking. I was embarassed. I’ve never felt handicapped though, just excluded.
Can you now recognize all 360 colors?
I can do more. I’ve decided to extend my vision spectrum to ultraviolet and infrared. But at the same time, with my eyes closed I can’t know if a person in front of me is black or white: skin always sounds orange, there’s just a bit more red or yellow in the background. I need to open my eyes and see if the skin tone is dark or fair.
Your outfit is very colorful.
I used to dress exclusively in black and white – I couldn’t stand the thought that I didn’t know what I was wearing. Now, I try to compose my outfit so that it sounds well. I’m currently working on a fashion line – you could wear your favorite song as a T-shirt. I also make “sound portraits” of famous people. By the way, a person who doesn’t have harmonious features may sound surprisingly well, for example Prince Carol sounds similarly to Nicole Kidman.
How do I sound?
Your hair is a G. Eyes, wait a minute – he points his eyeborg on me –, one is an Ais and the other one is a B. They never sound the same. Your lips are an E, your skin a Fis. People whose eyes and hair have a similar color sound uniformly whereas in your case there’s a contrast; that’s nice.
Do you sometimes take a break from the eyeborg?
No, never. If I want to turn it off, I point it towards the ceiling. At home I have my bedroom in black and white because the eyeborg doesn’t react to those colors.
What’s your favorite one?
Eggplant. It has a beautiful, strong and high sound. Violet is by the way very dangerous, it has the highest frequency, hence sounds aggressively. The traffic lights should have violet instead of red, which has a very low frequency and sounds soft and innocent.
Which painter sounds best?
Warhol, Miró, Rothko, because they sound very clear. Da Vinci, Velázquez and Munch, on the contrary, used various shades of the same color, so they emit many similar sounds. It’s like horror music.
Do you hear colors when listening to music?
Mozart is yellow, Beethoven is violet or blue. But since I’ve been using the eyeborg, the classical music seems very basic. It’s all about 12 colors repeating themselves on and on. I prefer listening to electronic music. I also really enjoy instruments out of key. An unknown shade of turquoise may suddenly pop up.
You claim to be the first cyborg recognized by a government.
In 2004, when renewing my British passport, the administration wouldn’t allow me to attach a photo with the eyeborg on my head. Finally, with a medical expertise and a letter from the university, I succeeded in persuading them that the eyeborg is a part of my body. So now in my passport I have a photo with the electronic eye. One can say I’m officially a cyborg.