Neil Harbisson was born with achromatopsia – a rare visual condition that results in total color blindness. To him, the world is a constantly dreary plane of grays, black and whites. But since 2003, the eccentric artist has had an antenna poking out of his distinctive bowl-cut hairdo, which allows him to “hear” colors.
His head-mounted antenna is able to detect the wavelengths of light reflected off whatever is in front of the sensor and then convert them into sound, with different wavelengths corresponding to different sound frequencies. The Belfast-born, Catalan-raised artist's antenna is permanently attached to his skull and delivers the sound waves to his inner ear through bone conduction.
Purples and indigos are perceived as a high-pitched bleep, with the colors becoming lower pitched as the spectrum shifts from blues to greens, then yellows to oranges, and so on. You can see in the table, below, how each color is “translated” into a sound in the antenna and mind of Harbisson.
How Harbisson's antenna portrays color wavelengths in Hertz (left) and musical notes (right). If need be, he can switch his antenna on or off. Image credit: Townsend87/Wikimedia Commons.
After years of practice, Harbisson can now perfectly recognize colors purely based on the pitch and tone of sound they create. He explained in a TED Talk in 2012 (which you can watch below) that he can now "listen" and appreciate the colors of paintings.
In the lecture, he said: “It's very, very attractive to walk along a supermarket. It's like going to a nightclub. It's full of different melodies, especially the aisle with cleaning products. It’s just fabulous!"
Due to his transplant, he's been dubbed the "world's first cyborg artist." He sees himself as an early proponent of transhumanism – a movement that explores the way technology can both psychologically and physically enhance human abilities. Maybe it’s a small battle in the grand scheme of transhumanism, but he was the first person allowed to have an electronic device on a British passport photograph, after a pen-pushing scuffle with the U.K. Passport Office.
The first incarnation of Harbisson’s antenna was designed well over a decade ago by Plymouth University cybernetics expert Adam Montandon. Since then, the antenna has moved with the times and is now Wi-Fi connected, allowing him to connect to other devices.
Nowadays, he continues his work as a visual artist, which has been a longstanding interest even before his antenna implant. Many pieces of his work focus on “translating” famous pieces of music or speeches into visualizations. One of his favorite displays is to exhibit his visualizations of the Martin Luther King “I have a dream“ speech and an Adolf Hitler speech. When he hangs them in his exhibition, he never labels them and leaves the guests to decide their favorite. He says, most of the time, people quickly change their preference when they find out which one’s which.