Artists Digital, , , , , , , , — February 22, 2012 10:43 — 1 Comment

How cyborg technology allows artist to hear colours

cyborg, Neil Harbisson, webcam, colours, eyeborg, technology, digital, artist

Colour-blind Artist Neil Harbisson wears a special webcam called an 'Eyeborg' that allows him to hear colour

Neil Harbisson suffers from achromatopsia, a condition that means he only sees in black and white, but a special ‘Eyeborg’ webcam allows him to translate colour through sound

Synethesia, the ability to hear colours or see sound, is a rare condition, some would say gift, that can aid the creative process. It’s more common in women than men, but famous artists such as David Hockney and Kandinsky are/were synesthetes.

Artist Neil Harbisson suffers from another rare disorder called achromatopsia that is impossible to cure and allows him to see only in black and white; a bit of a disadvantage for an artist you would figure?

“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,” he says in an interview with the  BBC World Service programme Outlook.

He also reveals how a special camera attached to his head allows him to hear colour.

“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,” he says.

Harbisson was allowed to do the entire art course in greyscale — only using black and white.

“I did very figurative art, trying to reproduce what I could see so that people could compare how my vision was to what they saw. I also learnt that through history, there have been many people who have related colour to sound.”

While at university he attended a cybernetics lecture by Adam Montandon that would change his life.

“I asked him if 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.”

hearing colours with eyeborg

The device, which Harbisson calls the ‘Eyeborg’, allows him to ‘hear’ colours. “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,” he says.

Harbisson wears the device 24 hours a day, carrying it around in a backpack so much so that he now dreams in colour and feels that his body and the device are completely connected. “I haven’t taken it off my head since 2004, except to change the equipment when it breaks,” he says.

“It looks like an antenna that comes out from my head and goes up to the front of my face. At the back of my head there’s a chip that transforms the light waves into sound, and I hear the colours, not through my ears but through my bone. At the beginning I had some strong headaches because of the constant input of sound, but after five weeks my brain adapted to it, and I started to relate music and real sound to colour.”

Harbisson says it has changed the way he perceives art. “Now I have created a completely new world where colour and sound are exactly the same thing. I like doing sound portraits — I get close to someone’s face, I take down the sound of the hair, the sounds of the skin, eyes and lips, and then I create a specific chord that relates to the face.

“Some people might be very beautiful but they might not sound very harmonic, although harmony is subjective.

Montandon, the Eyeborg inventor, says: “In the future, I believe that many people will use cyborg technology, not just those with a disability. A similar technology could allow people to see in the dark or experience infrared and ultraviolet light. Just because something is invisible no longer means we can’t see it.”

There is no end to the evolution of this electronic eye, agrees Harbisson. “At the moment, I can see 360 colours and I have extended this to infrared so I can hear colours that human eyes cannot see. I’m currently working on seeing ultraviolet, which is very important because it can damage our skin.”


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About the author

Tony Myers has written 866 articles for Smart Movie Making

Fooling around with the iPhone since 2010. Taking it to the next web by writing about new media, new technology, new wave cinema and the digital revolution.

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