Color for Cyborgs

North Broad Street by Justin Wolfe

We use color in a thousand unconscious ways every day. While standing on a train platform on your way to work: “Please stand behind the yellow safety corridor.” While shopping: “All blue tags are 50% off. Today only.” While browsing online: “Click the red button to subscribe.” While driving: “The light is green.” We understand color in our environment almost without thinking, but what if you saw the world in shades of grey? Every color reduced to a monochromatic gradient. You would see only in texture and never in the rich high definition that color gives the world. But it wouldn’t be just an aesthetic problem. Our urban worlds are designed with color as an organizing principle for everything from safety and navigability to brand identification and work flows.

That was the problem for the British born artist Neil Harbisson. Raised in Catalan Harbisson has a condition called a chromatopsia.  It is a genetic problem that causes the brain to be unable to perceive color at all (not to be confused with monochromacy in which patients can perceive colors but cannot distinguish between them). The persons brain instead sees the world like a black and white movie, and much like long exposure time on a camera can let in too much light and ruin the image, the brighter the light surrounding the person the whiter and blurrier the world would become.

Harbisson speaking at TED

In an effort to get around his condition Harbisson, in collaboration with computer scientist Adam Montandon, became a cyborg.  The team created a color sensor that Harbisson wore hovering over his forehead like a computerized antennae. The sensor then sends a signal to a chip on the back of his neck and then using bone resonance sends a different frequency to his ears for every color the sensor sees. This whole unit became know as the Eyeborg.

TED Idea Visualization on the Eyeborg

The process was slow at first requiring him to memorize the individual notes for each color, but over time hearing color become second nature and he even began to dream in color, his brain adding the electronic notes to his dreams when the software and sensor were not even connected. The device became more that just assistive technology but an extension of Neil Harbisson’s brain. He became a true cyborg. He now hears the music of color everywhere, supermarkets, art galleries, and even on his plate. He no longer just eats grey food but instead get to compose songs as he eats. He even dresses in cords. If you want to hear Harbisson talk more about his experience as a cyborg listen to his TED talk. 

Not many people have had the sensory expanding experience of hearing their colors yet but if you became a cyborg tomorrow what sense would you want to augment? Tasting music? Feeling textures for temperature? Hearing color? Tell us below!

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