“Not many people go for a walk in the supermarket for fun, but I do. I have an electronic eye that converts light into sound to enable me to “hear” colour – so the cleaning product aisle is very exciting. The rows of rainbow-coloured bottles sound like a symphony to me.”
“I come from a place where the sky is always grey; where flowers are always grey; and where television is still in black and white. I actually come from a world where colour doesn’t exist; I was born with achromatopsia, I was born completely colourblind. So I’ve never seen colour, and don’t know what it looks like. But since the age of 21, I can hear colour.” With the help of Adam Montandon, a cybernetics expert, Neil has created and developed an “eyeborg”, that translates color’s light waves into sound.
So, how does the eyeborg work?
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. The eyeborg detects the light’s hue, and converts it into a sound frequency that I can hear as a note [wavelength is inversely proportional to frequency so it can easily convert the wavelength of the light into a sound frequency]. It also translates the saturation of the colour into volume. So if it’s a vivid red I will hear it more loudly.
How is the eyeborg? Where is it located?
In the beginning, I had cables coming out of my head, snaking down into a big backpack with a laptop. It made people a bit uncomfortable. But now the eyeborg translates colour into sound using a chip at the back of my skull. It makes noise by pressing against my head and I hear colour through bone conduction. This way, it doesn’t interfere with regular hearing because it comes through different channels. I still have to recharge myself at a power socket, but I’m working on ways to use my blood circulation instead. In the near future I’m having it osteointegrated – which means that part of the device will be put inside my bone in a hospital in Barcelona and then the sound will resonate much better. It took a year to convince them that it was ethical to have the eyeborg implanted.
Neil has become, in 2004, the first official cyborg recognized by a government. His passport photo shows him with the equipment on his head, that has become a body part for Neil.
“When I started to hear the sound of colour in my dreams, that’s when I began to think of myself as a cyborg.”
Thanks to his eyeborg, Neil has made a career combining music and art. He does concerts playing the colors of the audience back to them plugging “himself” into speakers. He makes portraits live by pointing at the different hues on the different parts of the face, creating the chord of a face. Apparently Prince Charles sounds surprisingly similar to Nicole Kidman. He soon realized that cities were not grey, every city has a dominant color or two and he started a project that onsists in scanning the streets to find out city colors!
The artistic and social movement that aims to create artworks through new senses or the extension, reduction or modification of an existing sense as a result of the union of cybernetics and the body is referred as Cyborgism.
“If we extend our senses, we will consequently extend our knowledge.”
Neil, together with choreographer and fellow cyborg activist Moon Ribas, created in 2010 The Cyborg Foundation, currently based in Barcelona. Their mission is to help humans become cyborgs, to promote the use of the cybernetics as part of the human body and to defend cyborg rights. “There’s no legal protection for cyborgs. I’ve been kicked out of Harrods because I was perceived as a possible security threat, and many cinemas don’t let me in because they think I’m going to record the film.” says Neil, “We do not intend to repair people’s senses, we make no difference between people with “disabilities” and people with no “disabilities”, we believe we are all in need to extend our senses and perception. We are all disabled when we compare our senses with other animal species.”
“I encourage everyone to become a cyborg…You won’t be alone”
ABOUT Neil Harbisson
I was born with achromatopsia, a condition that means I see the world in greyscale. I was diagnosed when I was 11; before then, my parents thought I was just confusing colours, or couldn’t learn the difference. At first, doctors told me I was colour-blind; then, they thought it was a very severe case of colour-blindness and finally, they realized that I could only see in black and white. As a child, I tried lots of ways to understand colours. I related them to people: when someone talked about blue, I thought about a friend of mine who was very brainy. Pink was a feminine, hippie kind of girl; yellow was a boy from London, very childlike and eccentric. Kids at school teased me – once, someone gave me a red pen and told me it was blue, and I wrote a whole essay in the wrong colour. People found it funny when I wore mismatched socks, and as a teenager I wore only black and white clothes. In secondary school, my art teacher gave me permission to paint in greyscale. When I moved to Devon to study music composition at Dartington College of Arts, I heard a lecture by Adam Montandon, a cybernetics expert. He helped to create my first “eyeborg”, which lets me hear light waves. The very first thing I looked at with it, outside the classroom, was a red noticeboard. It made the note F, the lowest sound on the spectrum. Red was my favourite colour for years. Now it’s aubergine because it sounds unusually high pitched.