"Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul."
Neil Harbisson is one such artist who plays with the keyboard of colour to play the piano of soul without hammering with eyes, instead perceiving through ears. In Neil's words, "The problem is not that I can't see colours but because you can." He can't see the different shades of colour but he can listen to the different frequencies. Yes! he is the man who HEARS the colour.
Birth Of Eyeborg
Neil Harbisson was born with Achromatopsia (a rare vision disorder), rendering him to see the world only in grayscale. Doctors said it was incurable. When he was 16, much to the dismay of a teacher, Harbisson decided to study Art because he wanted to understand colour. He was allowed to do the course in greyscale. He went on to study colour theory. In Dartington College of Arts, he attended a lecture on cybernetics and asked the speaker, Adam Montandon, if it was possible to create a device for him to see colour. And then a machine called the "eyeborg" was invented that translates colour to sound.
What is Eyeborg?
With the help of a high-tech headset, Neil Harbisson can “hear” colour. The headset is essentially a webcam that hangs over his forehead like a third eye — it’s called an eyeborg. It was built for him by a British technology expert, Adam Montandon.
The eyeborg works with a head mounted camera that picks up the colour frequencies directly in front of the person, and then sends the frequencies to a tiny chip that translates them into sound. Each colour matches up with a tone and pitch, and using bone conduction in the back of his skull, Harbisson is able to listen to the colours the machine is seeing. He memorized the frequencies related to each colour: high frequency hues are high-pitched, while low frequency hues sound bolder. Harbisson can see a total of 360 colours, which is more than the human eye.
Eyeborg- The life Changer
|(Top) What non color-blind people see. (Below) What Neil Harbisson sees.|
Neil Harbisson says, "It has changed the way I perceive the world. Colour is everywhere, so everything has changed. I still can't see colour, but I can perceive it. I can experience it in a way that allows me to be a part of this reality, which I was excluded from before. Thanks to the eyeborg, I’ve made a career by combining music and art. I do concerts where I plug myself into a set of speakers and play the colours of the audience back to them. And I also started to perceive sound as colour. Telephone lines became green; Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” song seemed red and pink. So I started to paint using the sounds around me. I’ve made pictures of pieces by Vivaldi, Beethoven, and Mozart among others. Now, we are developing a bag that you will be able to customize with your favourite song (using the same pattern I do with the artworks)."
Life has become musical instead of colourful
“At the beginning it was very chaotic and I couldn’t really distinguish colours in front of me, but after months and after years of hearing colours continuously this just became a new sense, it became something beautiful, and I started to perceive the colours by the sounds," said Harbisson. “It’s like living in a music composition.”
Harbisson, a former music student, has used his expanded senses as a cyborg to contribute to his art. He already played piano. One day he realized he could compose using his sonic colours. It was more creative than just sitting at the keyboard and playing. Harbisson paints multi-colour soundscapes – a kind of sheet music of frequencies. 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 colours.
“A piano only has 12 notes in an octave, whereas, with colour, I have 360 notes in an octave, so it’s micro-tonal music, many more options,” Harbisson said. When he pans across the colours in his paintings with the electronic eye, the song plays and he records it. His latest project is called “Sonochromatic Dance.”
Harbisson’s favorite colour is eggplant. Its sound, he said, is high and pleasing and loud. Red, at the other end of the spectrum, is deep and calming. The frequency of all human skin is actually orange, whether you’re black, white or Asian. In his words,"No human is either black or white but a shade of orange which I can hear to."
None of his other senses are compromised — he hears colours through bone conduction and audio through regular air conduction in his ears — only enhanced. Harbisson says that if someone who could see in colour used an electronic eye, “it would be probably be like taking drugs because it would have kind of a psychedelic effect.”
Part of the body
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 hear colours 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-colour, hearing the tones associated with colours 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 colour, but it’s the sound of colour that I dream of.”
|Neil Harbisson can hear the orange (the color, that is)|
Neil now wears this “eyborg” 24 hours a day, and has doctor’s certification that he is a Cyborg. He continues to live each day as a colourful Cyborg in a colourful world.
"It’s very similar to a religion,” he said. “It’s like a priest who dedicates his life to something he doesn’t see. I don’t see colour, but I’m dedicating my life to it.”
Watch this witty and inspirational video to know more about HEARING colours.
Hioy'oy Hoi Polloi
This post is being submitted as an entry to The Idea Caravan Contest organized by Indiblogger in association with Franklin Templeton. Franklin Templeton Investments partnered with TEDx Gateway Mumbai in December 2012.