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The man who hears colour

News story

Last Monday, Curtin was host to a real, living cyborg.

Neil Harbisson has been officially recognised as a cyborg by the United Kingdom since 2004 and has the passport to prove it. The artist, cyborg activist and co-founder of the Cyborg Foundation visited Curtin to deliver an in-depth perspective on life in the age of cyborgs as part of Curtin’s Alternate Anatomies Lab lecture series.

Born completely colour blind, Harbisson has an antenna implanted in his skull that allows him to hear colour.

“When I was growing up, colour was a big mystery to me,” Harbission said, pointing out that rarely do us colour-sighted folk pause to consider how deeply colour is ingrained in our culture and language. Consider the clichés ‘green with envy’, ‘seeing red’ and ‘rosy complexion’.

“I couldn’t ignore that colour existed,” Harbisson said, “because everyone kept mentioning colour. Daily elements like Yellow Pages, Bluetooth, brown sugar and Red Bull reminded me everyday that colour existed.”

To Harbisson, the flags of Ireland, France and Italy all look the same. So do the red and blue taps in a bathroom. Maps can also be confusing.

routemap_en

A colour coded map of Tokyo’s subway. Credit: Tokyo Metro Co. Ltd. 2015.

 

Harbisson’s condition, known as achromantopsia, led him to create a ‘third eye’ that translates colour into an audible sound.

Colour and sound are both frequencies. Colour is a light frequency and sound is an audible frequency. At the bottom of our visible spectrum is red with a frequency of 360 to 440 terahertz. Violet is at the top end at around 607 to 717 terahertz.

With the help of his antenna, these light frequencies are detected and then transposed down 39 octaves to a sound Harbisson can hear. Red becomes F and blue a C.

“I memorised the sound of red, the sound of orange, the sound of yellow – all six main colours,” Harbisson said. “And when my brain got used to those six colours, we upgraded the software, and therefore my senses, to detect 12 colours.”

Slowly the number of colours he was able to hear grew, and by 2007 Harbisson was able to hear 360 notes of colour. Today, his perception even extends beyond the visible spectrum to ultraviolet and infrared.

“If I go to a shop I can tell if the alarms are on or off. Quite often they’re off,” Harbisson joked.

And why an antenna?

“I didn’t want to use or wear a tool to perceive colour,” Harbisson explained. “I wanted to become technology. I wanted to sense colour through a new body part. So I had to create a new sensory organ.”

Realising that implanting a literal third eye in his forehead would limit a device’s field of view to what was only in front of him, Harbisson turned to nature for inspiration and landed upon the idea of an antenna. Implanted into the back of his skull, the antenna uses Harbisson’s skull as a miniature bell, sending vibrations through the bone to his inner ear to generate a sound that he can hear – or technically feel.

The antenna also has an internet port incorporated into it, which allows Harbisson to receive images from other parts of the world, and even space.

“There are five people, each on different continents, who have access to my head,” Harbisson explained. “They use a mobile phone to live stream images directly to me. So I could be standing here, but suddenly feel the colours of a sunset coming through my antenna from somewhere else in the world.”

As of 2014 Harbisson has also been able to use the internet to connect to satellites and the International Space Station. Essentially he sends his senses to space to feel colours far from his physical body.

“The term cyborg comes from the words cybernetics and organism. And I am a union of these,” said Harbisson, and, perhaps ironically, he believes that becoming a cyborg brings a person closer to nature.

“Many people see the union of humans and technology as anti-natural, but I believe it is completely the opposite,” Harbisson said.

“I feel closer to animals than before. I feel a close relationship with insects because they have antennas like me. I feel closer to animals that sense ultraviolet light and infrared. If I see a cat looking at something and I perceive that there is infrared, then I know that this cat is looking at it.

“I believe that extending our senses to the level of other species will allow us connect on a stronger level with them. It will allow us to rediscover nature in a way we can’t now.”

Cyborg Foundation

 

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