Ben Squires

Eye Care

Colour-blind man listens to colour

Colour-blind man listens to colour

Imagine a world without colour. Imagine a landscape in complete greyscale, where sunflowers are pale grey and grass, black. For Neil Harbisson, that is a reality.

Harbisson suffers from a rare visual condition called achromatopsia, which is total colour blindness. He’s never seen colour.

At age 21, Harbisson decided to take on his greatest challenge and find a way to interpret colour. What he created with computer scientist Adam Montandon is astounding.

“In 2003, I started a project… for an electronic eye,” explains Harbisson, at a TEDGlobal conference. “It’s a colour sensor that detects the colour frequency in front of me and sends this frequency to a chip installed in the back of my head. [Then] I hear the colour in front of me.”

No, it’s not a scene from a sci fi film. Harbisson has created a wearable device that allows him to listen to colour. It’s a non-visual way for his brain to interpret the world around him, which has now become second nature.

It wasn’t always completely normal to ‘hear’ colour though. “At the start, I had to memorise the names you give for each colour. But after some time, all this information became a perception. I didn’t have to think. And after some time, this perception became a feeling. I started to have favourite colours and I started to dream in colours,” he says.

According to Harbisson, each colour has its own unique sound. Pink is C major- “a happy chord”- while turquoise if B minor.

Indeed, the device opens up a new world of beauty and appreciation. I can listen to Picasso. It’s like going to a concert hall!” he says. Supermarkets are also a new-found place of beauty, which he likens to a nightclub of noise. “Especially the aisle with cleaning products. It’s just fabulous,” he laughs.

Take a look at Neil Harbisson’s TED Talk, where he showcases how he uses the ‘electronic eye,’ and how it might revolutionise life for the colour blind.

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