Neil Harbisson was born color-blind. Although he knew what color an object was supposed to look like, say an apple or grass, he didn’t know what colors like red or green actually meant. But now thanks to an innovative headset designed by British cybernetics innovator Adam Montandon, Harbisson is able to understand color by listening to its sound.
The headset, deemed an eyeborg, holds a camera that is fitted atop the head to capture light. The waves of light get sent to a computer chip where they are matched with colors on the light spectrum and translated into sounds with distinct pitches.
In Harbisson’s case, the computer chip is resting on the back of his head so he can hear the sound through vibrations that are directly transmitted into his skull bone.
Harbisson says he receives color through the bones and listens to people through his ears so he can differentiate between visual sound and audio sound.
He tells PRI:
“I don’t see it as a device anymore, I see it as part of my body,” said Harbisson. “I started feeling this the same year I started using it, in 2004. I started to feel that the software and my brain were creating a new sense, and there was a point in which I couldn’t differentiate between what was given by the software and what came from my brain. I decided not to take it off anymore, and it’s been a part of my body since then.”
When Harbisson first tried out the device he brought it to the streets to listen to the colors of lights and to the grocery store to listen to produce. Through follow up research he also found that the device enables him to hear colors of wavelengths that the human eye can’t see, such as infrared.
The Scientist reports:
“The project is the ultimate demonstration of the promise of cyborgs, says Montandon, now a digital technologies professor at Erhvervsakademiet Lillebælt in Denmark. “It’s very easy with the technology we have now to explore different parts of the spectrum that we don’t normally experience,” Montandon adds. “You’re not just enabling someone with a disability, but you’re enabling someone to be more than a regular human.”
The researcher warns, however, that that the device is not the most practical solution to color blindness. For starters, people with true color blindness, or achromatopsia, have a number of other vision problems including involuntary eye movement, intolerance to visual perception of light and very poor visual acuity. A more promising treatment would be gene therapy to restore cone function. Human trials in this form of gene therapy are expected to start within the year.
Nevertheless, the eyeborg is still a unique way for people who are colorblind to interact with colors and sound.
Harbisson tells The Scientist: “People said that cities were gray—they’re not. They are actually extremely colorful. I’m discovering color in a different way.”
Photo via Adam Montandon