Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Wednesday Wonder: Cyborg Neil Harbisson

Artist, musician, and performer Neil Harbisson (b. 1982) is color-blind but that distinguishing characteristic is no barrier to creativity for the self-described "sonochromatic cyborg" who has studied color theory in depth. Thanks to advances in technology and the help of a brilliant inventor, Harbisson, who lives and works in Spain, became the first person ever to be fitted with an "eyeborg", according to his biographical statement (see About page on Harbisson's Website), which also indicates that Harbisson is "officially recognized as a cyborg" by the government of the United Kingdom because the device he wears is recognized as a permanent part of Harbisson's body. 

To correct his achromatopsia, which allows him to see only black and white, Harbisson wears a headset that lets him "hear" the sounds of colors. The headset is equipped with a digital camera and a microchip; the camera's eye "reads" whatever color frequencies are in front of Harbisson and then sends them to the chip, which converts them into sound waves. Harbisson has memorized the frequencies associated with the various colors and so can state what he perceives a color to be based on the sound associated with it. 

(As Harbisson explains on his About page, every color consists of light, tone, and saturation, and each tone has a frequency. The pitch of one tone differs from the pitch of another, depending on whether the hue frequency is "high" or "low". With the prosthetic, Harbisson is able to perceive as many as 360 different color hues and, through different volume levels, saturation. )

In this 2007 Discovery Channel feature, Harbisson explains how he sees the world and uses the colors he hears:


The "extra sense" made possible with the device enables Harbisson not only to paint, by "listening" to colors, but also to compose music, by transforming into notes the sounds associated with the colors the artist perceives. Below is "Fruit Song", just one example of a "soundscape" that Harbisson has composed.

Go here to listen to and see the colors of Harbisson's Sonochromatic Music Scale, which is a microtonal and logarithmic scale with 360 notes in an octave, each note corresponding to a specific degree of the color wheel.

Harbisson's "Sound Portraits" is here. See the sidebar for additional videos. Images of Harbisson's artwork, photography, and performances are found in the Portfolio section of his Website.

Also Of Interest

"Color-Blind Artist Uses Sounds to 'See' Color", PRI, February 29, 2012 (You'll find hear Harbisson's radio interview.)

"Seeing Things in a Different Light", BBC, January 19, 2005

"Wednesday Wonder: Meet Cyborg Kevin Warwick", Writing Without Paper, September 29, 2010

Neil Harbisson on FaceBook


Hannah Stephenson said...

So freaking cool!!!

I liked the song, although I was hoping there would be layers of tones (bunches of fruit at once).

Very inspiring.

Anonymous said...

he would be great at tuning instruments.