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TEDGlobal 2012

Neil Harbisson: I listen to color

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Views 2,505,150

Artist Neil Harbisson was born completely color blind, but these days a device attached to his head turns color into audible frequencies. Instead of seeing a world in grayscale, Harbisson can hear a symphony of color -- and yes, even listen to faces and paintings.

- Sonochromatic Cyborg Artist
Neil Harbisson's "eyeborg" allows him to hear colors, even those beyond the range of sight. Full bio

Well, I was born with a rare visual condition
00:16
called achromatopsia, which is total color blindness,
00:20
so I've never seen color,
00:23
and I don't know what color looks like,
00:25
because I come from a grayscale world.
00:28
To me, the sky is always gray,
00:31
flowers are always gray,
00:33
and television is still in black and white.
00:35
But, since the age of 21,
00:37
instead of seeing color, I can hear color.
00:40
In 2003, I started a project
00:44
with computer scientist Adam Montandon,
00:47
and the result, with further collaborations
00:49
with Peter Kese from Slovenia
00:53
and Matias Lizana from Barcelona,
00:55
is this electronic eye.
00:58
It's a color sensor that detects
01:00
the color frequency in front of me — (Frequency sounds) —
01:02
and sends this frequency to a chip installed
01:06
at the back of my head, and I hear the color in front of me
01:08
through the bone, through bone conduction.
01:11
(Frequency sounds) So, for example, if I have, like —
01:14
This is the sound of purple. (Frequency sounds)
01:21
For example, this is the sound of grass. (Frequency sounds)
01:24
This is red, like TED. (Frequency sounds)
01:32
This is the sound of a dirty sock. (Laughter)
01:34
Which is like yellow, this one.
01:38
So I've been hearing color all the time for eight years,
01:40
since 2004, so I find it completely normal now
01:44
to hear color all the time.
01:47
At the start, though, I had to memorize the names you give
01:49
for each color, so I had to memorize the notes,
01:53
but after some time, all this information
01:56
became a perception.
01:58
I didn't have to think about the notes.
02:00
And after some time, this perception became a feeling.
02:02
I started to have favorite colors,
02:04
and I started to dream in colors.
02:06
So, when I started to dream in color is when I felt
02:08
that the software and my brain had united,
02:12
because in my dreams, it was my brain creating
02:15
electronic sounds. It wasn't the software,
02:18
so that's when I started to feel like a cyborg.
02:20
It's when I started to feel that the cybernetic device
02:24
was no longer a device.
02:27
It had become a part of my body,
02:29
an extension of my senses,
02:32
and after some time, it even became a part
02:34
of my official image.
02:37
This is my passport from 2004.
02:40
You're not allowed to appear on U.K. passports
02:43
with electronic equipment, but I insisted
02:46
to the passport office that what they were seeing
02:48
was actually a new part of my body,
02:51
an extension of my brain, and they finally accepted me
02:53
to appear with the passport photo.
02:57
So, life has changed dramatically since I hear color,
02:59
because color is almost everywhere,
03:03
so the biggest change for example is
03:05
going to an art gallery, I can listen to a Picasso,
03:08
for example. So it's like I'm going to a concert hall,
03:13
because I can listen to the paintings.
03:16
And supermarkets, I find this is very shocking,
03:18
it's very, very attractive to walk along a supermarket.
03:20
It's like going to a nightclub.
03:23
It's full of different melodies. (Laughter) Yeah.
03:25
Especially the aisle with cleaning products.
03:28
It's just fabulous. (Laughter)
03:30
Also, the way I dress has changed.
03:33
Before, I used to dress in a way that it looked good.
03:36
Now I dress in a way that it sounds good. (Laughter)
03:38
(Applause)
03:43
So today I'm dressed in C major,
03:48
so it's quite a happy chord. (Laughter)
03:51
If I had to go to a funeral, though,
03:54
I would dress in B minor, which would be
03:56
turquoise, purple and orange. (Laughter)
03:58
Also, food, the way I look at food has changed,
04:07
because now I can display the food on a plate,
04:11
so I can eat my favorite song. (Laughter)
04:15
So depending on how I display it,
04:18
I can hear and I can compose music with food.
04:19
So imagine a restaurant where we can have, like,
04:22
Lady Gaga salads as starters. (Laughter) I mean,
04:25
this would get teenagers to eat their vegetables, probably.
04:28
And also, some Rachmaninov piano concertos
04:31
as main dishes, and some Bjork or Madonna desserts,
04:34
that would be a very exciting restaurant
04:37
where you can actually eat songs.
04:40
Also, the way I perceive beauty has changed,
04:43
because when I look at someone, I hear their face,
04:48
so someone might look very beautiful but sound terrible.
04:52
(Laughter) And it might happen the opposite,
04:57
the other way around. So I really enjoy creating, like,
04:59
sound portraits of people.
05:01
Instead of drawing someone's face, like drawing the shape,
05:03
I point at them with the eye and I write down
05:07
the different notes I hear, and then I create sound portraits.
05:09
Here's some faces.
05:12
(Musical chords)
05:14
Yeah, Nicole Kidman sounds good. (Laughter)
05:29
Some people, I would never relate, but they sound similar.
05:32
Prince Charles has some similarities with Nicole Kidman.
05:35
They have similar sound of eyes.
05:38
So you relate people that you wouldn't relate,
05:40
and you can actually also create concerts
05:42
by looking at the audience faces.
05:46
So I connect the eye, and then I play the audience's faces.
05:48
The good thing about this is,
05:51
if the concert doesn't sound good, it's their fault.
05:53
It's not my fault, because — (Laughter)
05:56
And so another thing that happens is that
05:58
I started having this secondary effect
06:02
that normal sounds started to become color.
06:05
I heard a telephone tone, and it felt green
06:09
because it sounded just like the color green.
06:12
The BBC beeps, they sound turquoise,
06:15
and listening to Mozart became a yellow experience,
06:18
so I started to paint music and paint people's voices,
06:21
because people's voices have frequencies
06:26
that I relate to color.
06:28
And here's some music translated into color.
06:29
For example, Mozart, "Queen of the Night," looks like this.
06:34
(Music) Very yellow and very colorful,
06:40
because there's many different frequencies.
06:41
(Music)
06:44
And this is a completely different song.
06:48
(Music) It's Justin Bieber's "Baby." (Laughter)
06:50
(Music)
06:54
It is very pink and very yellow.
06:56
So, also voices, I can transform speeches into color,
06:59
for example, these are two very well-known speeches.
07:06
One of them is Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream,"
07:10
and the other one is Hitler.
07:14
And I like to exhibit these paintings in the exhibition halls
07:15
without labels, and then I ask people,
07:18
"Which one do you prefer?"
07:21
And most people change their preference
07:23
when I tell them that the one on the left is Hitler
07:25
and the one on the right is Martin Luther King.
07:28
So I got to a point when I was able to perceive 360 colors,
07:31
just like human vision.
07:37
I was able to differentiate all the degrees of the color wheel.
07:39
But then, I just thought that
07:42
this human vision wasn't good enough.
07:44
There's many, many more colors around us
07:47
that we cannot perceive,
07:50
but that electronic eyes can perceive.
07:51
So I decided to continue extending my color senses,
07:53
and I added infrared and I added ultraviolet
07:57
to the color-to-sound scale, so now I can hear colors
08:01
that the human eye cannot perceive.
08:05
For example, perceiving infrared is good because you can
08:07
actually detect if there's movement detectors in a room.
08:10
I can hear if someone points at me with a remote control.
08:14
And the good thing about perceiving ultraviolet is that
08:18
you can hear if it's a good day or a bad day to sunbathe,
08:21
because ultraviolet is a dangerous color,
08:26
a color that can actually kill us, so I think we should all have this wish
08:28
to perceive things that we cannot perceive.
08:32
That's why, two years ago,
08:35
I created the Cyborg Foundation,
08:37
which is a foundation that tries to help people
08:38
become a cyborg, tries to encourage people
08:41
to extend their senses
08:44
by using technology as part of the body.
08:45
We should all think that knowledge comes from our senses,
08:48
so if we extend our senses,
08:52
we will consequently extend our knowledge.
08:54
I think life will be much more exciting
08:57
when we stop creating applications for mobile phones
09:00
and we start creating applications for our own body.
09:03
I think this will be a big, big change
09:06
that we will see during this century.
09:08
So I do encourage you all to think about which senses
09:10
you'd like to extend.
09:14
I would encourage you to become a cyborg.
09:16
You won't be alone. Thank you. (Applause)
09:19
(Applause)
09:23
Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the speaker:

Neil Harbisson - Sonochromatic Cyborg Artist
Neil Harbisson's "eyeborg" allows him to hear colors, even those beyond the range of sight.

Why you should listen

Born with the inability to see color, Neil Harbisson wears a prosthetic device — he calls it an "eyeborg" — that allows him to hear the spectrum, even those colors beyond the range of human sight. His unique experience of color informs his artwork — which, until he met cyberneticist Adam Montandon at a college lecture, was strictly black-and-white. By working with Montandon, and later with Peter Kese, Harbisson helped design a lightweight eyepiece that he wears on his forehead that transposes the light frequencies of color hues into sound frequencies.

Harbisson's artwork blurs the boundaries between sight and sound. In his Sound Portraits series, he listens to the colors of faces to create a microtonal chord. In the City Colours project, he expresses the capital cities of Europe in two colors (Monaco is azure and salmon pink; Bratislava yellow and turquoise).

More profile about the speaker
Neil Harbisson | Speaker | TED.com