His prosthetic induces “inverse synesthesia” to address his inability to perceive hue and saturation. Not only can he hear color, but infrared and ultraviolet as well.
Neil Harbisson can only see shades of grey. So his prosthetic eyepiece, which he calls an “eyeborg”, interprets the colours for him and translates them into sound…
When did you realise you were colour blind?
When I was a kid they noticed that I had a big problem with colour blindness. They thought it was the normal red-green type, but it wasn’t. Eventually, when I was 11 years old, they diagnosed me with achromatopsia, which means I can only see shades of grey. About one in 33,000 people have this type of colour blindness.
What is the gadget you are wearing?
It’s a sensor that lets me “see” colours.
How does it work?
Colour is basically hue, saturation, and light. Right now, I can see light in shades of grey, but I can’t see its saturation or hue.
This gadget detects the light’s hue, and converts the light into a sound frequency that I can hear as a note [wavelength is inversely proportional to frequency so it can easily convert the wavelength of the light into a sound frequency]. It also translates the saturation of the colour into volume. So if it’s a vivid red I will hear it more loudly.
All the translation happens in a chip on the back of my neck - it’s all held by pressure onto the bone. It stays there all the time when I go to bed. In September I’m having it osteointegrated - which means that part of the device will be put inside my bone in a hospital in Barcelona and then the sound will resonate much better then. It took a year to convince them that it was ethical and part of me…
What is it like? Your world must look very different.
It’s like an extra sense, a seventh sense. It’s not synaesthesia. Synaesthetes see colour. I never do. I hear it through bone and see beyond the normal.
Can you go beyond the normal range of the 300 or so visible hues?
I can do infrared spectrum - I see colour that is invisible, like some of the animals that see at night. And also ultraviolet.
The thing about UV is that it’s good to detect it because it damages the skin and I can detect it. I can build a picture that no one else sees.
Tell me about your art
I create sound from colours. Suppose I look at a dark plum. I see it as a light frequency and this frequency corresponds to a note. And the eyeborg, as I call it, lets me hear that note - anywhere between E and F in microtones. That makes it easy to see the dominant colour. And I can create art from sounds by transposing sound into notes and therefore into colour.
This a physical relationship between sound and colour, it’s neither arbitrary nor is it synesthesia.