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Environment & Science

'Cyborg' Neil Harbisson can hear in color

Neil Harbisson gives a TED talk:
Neil Harbisson gives a TED talk: "I Listen to Color."
Neil Harbisson gives a TED talk:
Neil listening to Prince Charles.
Neil Harbisson gives a TED talk:
Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" painted by Neil Harbisson.
Neil Harbisson gives a TED talk:
Beethoven's "Für Elise" painted by Neil Harbisson.
Neil Harbisson gives a TED talk:
Mozart's "Queen of the Night" painted by Neil Harbisson.
Neil Harbisson gives a TED talk:
"Baby" by Justin Beiber painted by Neil Harbisson.
Neil Harbisson gives a TED talk:
Neil listening to Al Gore.

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Neil Harbisson was born with achromatopsia, rendering him only able to see the world in grayscale, but with a machine he helped invent called the "eyeborg" he can now hear in color. Harbisson says he was inspired by the idea of expanding his perception: his eyeborg machine perceives a wide spectrum of colors, including some that the human eye can't detect, and translates them into sound.

Each color matches up with a tone and pitch, and using bone conduction in the back of his skull, Harbisson is able to listen to the colors the machine is seeing. 

"It's pressuring the bone, so I can hear colors through bone conduction and it's a chip at the back of my head that's transposing light frequencies to sound frequencies," said Harbisson. "Now I want it drilled inside the bone...I presented this as an operation to the hospital and this was accepted last year, so this year it will take place in Barcelona."

Harbisson has been wearing his eyeborg for almost a decade, and over time has adapted it to see more and more. The eyeborg can detect some colors that only insects and birds can see, as well as infrared, which Harbisson says is his favorite color because of its low tone.

The machine transposes the frequency of light that create color 37 octaves lower to create sounds that Harbisson can detect. Each color has a “microtone” -- at first the cacophony was overwhelming and distracting.

“At the beginning it was very chaotic and I couldn’t really distinguish colors in front of me, but after months and after years of hearing colors continuously this just became a new sense, it became something beautiful, and I started to perceive the colors by the sounds," said Harbisson.  “It’s like living in a music composition.”

His brain is so used to hearing color all the time that it has become normal for him.  Harbisson has developed perfect pitch on his sonochromatic scale and can immediately match a tone to the correct color.

RELATED: Videos of Neil Harbisson on KPCC's visuals blog AudioVision

The eyeborg is permanently attached to Harbisson’s head — originally he was carrying around a heaving computer — and after the eyeborg is surgically implanted he will hear colors with a less pressured form of bone conduction.

Harbisson began to feel as though he was a cyborg after five months of wearing the eyeborg.

“Being a cyborg is feeling like a cybernetic device is no longer an external device but part of your body,” he said. He began to feel as though the eyeborg was “an extension of [his] brain” when he started to have dreams in sound-color, hearing the tones associated with colors in his dreams.

“When I sleep it’s my brain that creates electronic sounds,” Harbisson says. “If I go to sleep if I dream of the sky or I dream of oranges my brain creates electronic sounds of the sky or the oranges. So I dream in color, but it’s the sound of color that I dream of.”

Harbisson, a former music student, has used his expanded senses as a cyborg to contribute to his art. He paints famous speeches and works of music. He has spent time listening to famous faces -- Prince Charles has a nice sound to him -- and looking at beautiful vistas, though Harbisson says his favorite views are at the supermarket, where pure white light enhances bright colors.

None of his other senses are compromised — he hears colors through bone conduction and audio through regular air conduction in his ears — only enhanced. Harbisson says that if someone who could see in color used an electronic eye, “it would be probably be like taking drugs because it would have kind of a psychedelic effect.”

Harbisson points out that while he is using the eyeborg to perceive color, similar technology could be used only for ultraviolets or infrareds -- users would know it was a good day to sunbathe or whether infrared light was being used in the room they were in.

While many are fascinated by the eyeborg and cyborgism, Harbisson says that cyborg rights have a ways to go.  Harbisson has often been discriminated against by store owners and law enforcement officers who assume the eyeborg is a camera. There are also developments to be made in the medical field for those wishing to use technology to enhance their senses. Harbisson says that when he has problems perceiving a color he doesn’t know who to go to -- an opthamologist, a neurologist, or a computer programmer.

What is the future of cyborgism? How can people enhance their perception with technology? Neil Harbisson joins us for a conversation about his experience as the world's first recognized cyborg. 

Neil Harbisson, Cyborgist and Colorologist