To Hear Color, This Man Embedded a Chip in the Back of His Head

Because of a rare condition called achromatopsia—total color-blindness—he lived in a black-and-white world, until he and an inventor paired up to developed the “eyeborg,” a device that translates colors into sound

From birth, Neil Harbisson lacked the ability to perceive color. Because of a rare condition called achromatopsia—total color-blindness—he always lived in a black-and-white world. But with the help of inventor Adam Montadon, Harbisson developed the “eyeborg,” a device that he wears on his head that translates colors into sound. The camera senses the color frequency in front of him, then sends different audible frequencies to a chip embedded in the back of his head.

Using the same color-sound language, he now also translates music into colors to create art—painting a multi-chromatic modernist representation of a Justin Bieber song, for instance. And as he explains in the film above, his ability to perceive color through sound has expanded into the realm of the superhuman; he can now “see” infrared rays, and soon, he hopes, ultraviolet as well.

This mini-documentary about their project won the Focus Forward Filmmaker Competition (h/t David Pogue on Twitter).

Harbisson spoke more about how the “eyeborg” has changed his life in this fascinating TED talk, below. “Before I used to dress in a way that it looked good,” he says, wearing pink, blue, and yellow. “Now I dress in a way that it sounds good. So today I am dressed in C major, it is quite a happy chord.”

The most intriguing part of Harbisson’s TED talk is the very end, when he says that “I think life will be much more exciting when stop creating applications for the mobile phones and we start creating applications for our own body…. I do encourage you all to think about which senses you would like to extend. I would encourage you to become a cyborg—you won’t be alone.” The TED blog has a list of six other “real-life cyborgs,” who go through daily life with cameras in their eyes, USB drives in their hands and extra ears in their arms. (Yikes!)

According to Harbisson’s and Montadon’s Cyborg Foundation website, the team is working on all kinds of wild, sensory-experience-expanding projects in addition to the “eyeborg.” There’s also a “speedborg,” which is like a little radar detector that you wear on your hand that translates the speed of an object into vibrations; a “fingerborg,” a prosthetic finger with a miniature camera inside; and “360-degree sensory extension”—a pair of earrings that vibrates when someone approaches from behind.

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