Neil Harbisson was born with a rare form of colour blindness called achromatopsia, which affects one in 33 000 people and means he sees the world in greys. That is until he invented an antenna that converts colour into sound and had it surgically implanted into the back of his head. He is the first person in the world with an antenna implanted in his skull and the first to be officially recognised as a cyborg by a government.
I feel no difference between the software and my brain or the antenna and any other body part. The software is a part of my mind and the antenna is a part of my body.
In this short film, Hearing colour, directed by Greg Brunkalla, Harbisson strolls around New York City discussing his unique ability to "hear colours" and explaining how the technology works:
“My antenna is a body part and it allows me to hear colours, so it has a colour sensor that picks up the light frequencies in front of me,” he says. “It sends the light frequencies to a chip at the back of my head and then the chip transposes the colour into sound waves. So I hear colour through bone conduction.”
Being colour-blind means that Harbisson can’t make connections that people with full vision can make between, for example, the sky and the shade of someone’s eyes but it does allow him to view the world more arbitrarily, for example he says that the sound of taxi horns are just like the sound of a lime (which he hears in G-sharp).
Hearing colour also means that Harbisson has a very interesting and different take on the idea of post-racialism. “There is no black skin, people that say that they are black are actually very very dark orange. And people that say that they are white are not white, they are actually very very light orange.”
The film is part of a series of collaborations between Samsung and Vimeo called Connected, that commissions top directors to explore the relationship between humans and technology. In this case, Harbisson and his technology have a close relationship, as he explains to a puzzled British couple in Central Park, he sleeps and showers with his antenna. To which they make they offer the most appropriate reaction: “Bloody hell!”