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18th September 2014

Are you colour blind? – Listen to colour through the ‘eyeborg’

Neil was born with a rare case of achromatopsia (total colour blindness), a disease causing him to see the world in shades of grey.

Colour blindness is one of the most common conditions today: approximately 8% of men, and a 0.5% of women are red-green colour blind: the most common form of colour blindness. The chances of total colour blindness however are slim: 1 in 33,000.

As of date, there is no general treatment or cure to achromatopsia.

Neil is stubborn, and for years he went on looking for solutions, partnering with doctors, researchers, scientists to come up with a way he could sense colours too. Then a decade ago, he was fitted with the ‘eyeborg’: a device enabling him to feel 360 distinct colours (similar to human vision) plus two more: infrared and ultraviolet. This comes in handy if you want to know whether there is a movement detector in the room, or whether or not you should sunbathe on a given day.

How does it work?

The antenna, mounted on his head can read the colours of the object placed before it and with a help of a chip based in the back of his head, the colours are converted into into sound waves. This chip does this by “slowing down” colour to an extent where it becomes sound.

“If it’s a vivid red I will hear it more loudly”

“Colour is basically hue, saturation, and light. Right now, I can see light in shades of grey, but I can’t see its saturation or hue. This gadget detects the light’s hue, and converts the light into a sound frequency that I can hear as a note” Neil explained to New Scientist. “It also translates the saturation of the colour into volume. So if it’s a vivid red I will hear it more loudly.”  

(Photograph by Dan Wilton)

In his TED Talk in 2012, he amplified the sounds he hears through bone conduction, giving us a chance to listen in to what purple sounds like. For me it was like an early version of R2-D2, but I’m no pro at eyeborgs.

In March, he debuted the eyeborg 2.0, equipped with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, giving him the opportunity to perceive an image without actually seeing it. “He can now not only perceive the colours that are in front of him but also colours that other people are looking at on their phones.” spokesperson for the project Mariana Viada explained to IB Times.  With the help of the new audio input implanted in his skull, “there is now more distinction between the colours – it is much wider and more definite.” Not to mention the cool factor of saying you have Wi-Fi receiver implanted in your head.

Blended senses

When I first read about Neil, I had this weird feeling of familiarity, like I’d heard of this before and then it hit me: synaesthesia, a state of blended senses.  The phenomenon comes in various shapes, forms, and tastes. “Synesthetes” can literally hear and taste colours, feel shapes and smell sounds. It’s a whole new augmented way of feeling and sensing the world around us.  One of the most famous synaesthesia maps is probably that of James Wannerton, the man who created the taste map of the London tube.

(James Wannerton, London tube taste map)

But Neil is no synesthete. He actually claims to be a cyborg. “At the start I had to memorise the names you give for each colour… But after some time all this information became a perception and I didn’t have to think about the notes..”  A while later his perception changed to a feeling where “I started to have favourite colours, and I started to dream in colour. ”.. and then boom “the software and my brain have united… and I started to feel like a cyborg.

Colour, sound…both – An artist’s perspective

Even though Neil cannot see colour in the traditional way, he can sense it, which has opened up his life as an artist as well.  He paints, composes music, and recently had a go at fashion design.

One of his trademarks is the sound portrait. These are basically made up of the colours of the skin, the eyes, the hair. “Instead of drawing someone’s face, I point at them with the eye and I write down the different notes I hear.” says Neil. If you want to listen in on Andy Garcia, or Woody Allen check this video from 5:10.


(Neil Harbisson making a sound portrait of Al Gore)

“Listening to Mozart became a Yellow experience”

Turning it around, he developed a secondary effect, where sounds he heard became sensed as colour. And what does any artist do when they starts sensing in ways others cannot? Well they create art out of it.

“So I started to paint music, and paint people’s voices… listening to Mozart became a Yellow experience.”

It’s difficult to understand what Neil feels, or hears when he perceives colour. For me, it was random high and low pitched sounds you hear in the background when you Skype. For him, it could be the doorway to sharing his perception of the world of colours through his art. Either way, Neil is not shy to share his experiences and if you’re itching to find out what colours sound like on a smartphone check the app he created enabling us mere mortals to join in on the “Neil Harbisson experience”.

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Photo credit: Neil Harbisson