Hearing Colour, Cyborg Style

Source: TEDGlobal2012

Many people with disabilities will tell you that their other senses have become enhanced in an effort to help them overcome their disadvantage. While it’s true that improved senses like hearing and touch can help you make sense of your surroundings when you’re blind, no amount of sensory augmentation can make you see colour. Or can it?

Artist Neil Harbisson suffers from achromatopsia, a condition that only allows him to see black, white and shades of grey. He told the BBC that he decided to study art at the age of sixteen but when he explained his situation to his tutor his first response was “What the hell are you doing here then?” Not to be deterred Neil went on to indicate that he wanted to understand what colour was – rather a tall order for someone who is incapable of seeing it.

Nevertheless Harbisson completed the art course in greyscale before going on to university but his desire to experience colour only intensified.  It was there that he attended a cybernetics lecture by a student from Plymouth University Adam Montandon. Neil approached Adam with a request to make him a device that would enable him to see colour.

Montandon’s solution? A controversial eyeborg device that enables Neil to hear colour by translating every colour (and shade thereof) into a musical tone. This image from the BBC article illustrates it perfectly:

The device looks a little like an antenna that loops from the back of Neil’s head to just in front of his right eye. The antenna (with a small camera) connects to a chip at the back of his head which transforms light waves into sound which Neil then hears via bone conduction. Originally the two started off with six colours, gradually expanding the software, and Neil’s ability to memorize the tones, to today where he can distinguish between aroudn360 different hues. Needless to say the device has radically altered Harbisson’s perspective by allowing him to experience colour on a daily basis. So much so that Neil admits he hasn’t removed the device since 2004 and no considers it to be a natural extension of his body.

Harbisson mentions during a TED talk that he now considers himself to be a cyborg and has even convinced British authorities to allow him to have his passport photo taken while wearing the device.

Neil is so enthusiastic about the concept that he created the Cyborg Foundation in 2010 with the aim of helping humans become cyborgs. Interested parties can contact the nonprofit for information and devices as it believes that “eyeborgs and any other cybernetic extensions should be treated as body parts, not as devices, and therefore should never be sold but donated”, as Harbisson explained to Terra Networks.

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