Color Blind Artist ‘Sees’ Shades As Sound Through Surgically Implanted Device

Color Blind Artist ‘Sees’ Shades As Sound Through Surgically Implanted Device

Neil Harbisson was born with the ability to only perceive black and white, but has now experienced a full spectrum of the rainbow through his 'eyeborg.'

Allie Walker
  • 14 july 2012

Roughly 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women are born colorblind, without the ability to fully distinguish colors. Implications could range from mildly irritating- not being able to pick out matching socks, to more serious, as in hindering an occupational aspiration. Some jobs require the ability to distinguish colors, for safety reasons (operating vehicles based on colored signals) or practical reasons — mixing paint colors or as an electrician, determining the difference between colored wires. In some countries, where safety concerns range to extreme, men and women who are color blind are legally barred from driving.

How then, could an artist make a living while suffering from color blindness? Irish artist Neil Harbisson was born with a rare condition called achromatopsia, only able to perceive the world in black and white. His artwork was naturally, all black and white, until roughly 10 years ago, when he began to ‘see’ colors with the help of a prosthetic device that translates colors into sounds. The device, which he refers to as an ‘eyeborg,’ rests on his forehead, and is a single sensor connected to the base of his neck  through extreme pressure. The sensor translates the light frequencies of colors into sound frequencies; each color has its own frequency, allowing Harbisson to see a full spectrum of colors:

Until I was 11, I didn’t know I could only see in shades of grey. I thought I could see colours but that I was confusing them. When I was 16, I decided to study art. I told my tutor I could only see in black and white, and his first reaction was, ‘What the hell are you doing here then?’ I told him I really wanted to understand what colour was.

At University I went to a cybernetics lecture by Adam Montandon, a student from Plymouth University, and asked if we could create something so I could see colour. He came up with a simple device, made up of a webcam, a computer and a pair of headphones and created software that would translate any colour in front of me into a sound.

If we were all to hear the frequency of red, for example, we would hear a note that is in between F and F sharp. Red is the lowest frequency colour and the highest is violet.

I started using it 24 hours a day, carrying it around in a backpack and feeling that the cybernetic device, the eyeborg, and my organism were completely connected. I haven’t taken it off my head since 2004, except to change the equipment when it breaks. [via]

But soon, Harbisson will undergo a surgery to implant the device into his head; two screws will connect the device’s antenna and electronic chip, and a 3rd will allow sound to pass through his skull. Harbisson will still have to charge the device through a USB port in his neck, but he hopes to one day be able to use his own blood flow to power the device.

With the implantation of the ‘eyeborg,’ Harbisson will become a cyborg. Known readily in the science fiction world, cyborgs are beings that have both biological and mechanical parts. Harbisson won’t be the first ‘cyborg,’ but the procedure does bring up ethical and moral concerns–how far can we use technology to enhance our lives? On one hand, the technology behind the device has potential to help millions who also suffer from color blindness- but on the other hand, the technology has the potential to be used improperly, to enhance someone’s life not for practical or safety reasons, but for vanity and ego.

Neil Harbisson

Image credit: TED

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