Meet the cyborg who sees colors through sounds

Imagine seeing the world like the lenses of an old film, all in black and white. As fictitious as this seems, people around the planet suffer from achromatopsia, a syndrome that affects precisely the ability to see and differentiate colors, visualizing only shades of gray. This is considered the worst stage of color blindness.

Although medicine has created treatments to alleviate this problem, there has never been anything as effective as what the Irish Neil Harbisson, now 27, did it. Harbisson was color-blind and submitted to seeing the world around him in a more colorful way. He started to use equipment that allows to see colors through sound, or better, to hear them. Neil takes with him a small electronic device connected to the bones of his body, which functions as a kind of binary eye, better known aseyeborg. With that, Neil became the first recognized cyborg on the planet.

The boy has had achromatopsia since he was a child and, for him, it was a shock to discover what this disease meant, because in his mind he just confused the colors. “Knowing that I had the disease created a special effect on me. At first I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t see them, but not because of a personal problem, but because the rest of the world sees them. Whether you want to or not, it’s impossible ignore colors, even if you don’t see them. “

Even with the problem, a few years later, Neil decided to study Visual Arts, with the difference that he only used black and white as shades while studying at Dartington College of Arts (England) in 2001. It was from there that the future cyborg began to understand and study colors better and work with something that you cannot see and that may not even exist. “As you cannot see and there is no color in front of you, so you doubt its existence,” he said.

In October 2003, Neil went to a technology fair to attend a lecture on cyber sensory extensions, led by Professor Adam Montandon. A year later, the two developed the design of a webcam that transformed colors into musical notes. For the first time in his life, he was able to perceive colored tones through sounds.

The first verse of the eyeborg was somewhat uncomfortable for the Irish, who had to carry a five-kilogram computer and headphones to be able to hear and interpret the sounds of the colors (he only received musical notes through one ear). In the second model of the binary eye, the PC that Neil carried reduced his weight to three kilos. Finally, in the third and last version, the cyborg switched the headphones for two audio inputs and connected the sound stimuli directly to his skull, then, according to him, the bones are capable of propagating sounds.

Connected to the functions of your brain, the binary eye recognizes colors by transforming them into different sound frequencies, which involves a combination of tone, saturation and light. Neil explained that higher saturation levels convey higher volume levels and vice versa. Today, your eyeborg can reproduce 360 ​​sonic microtones that correspond to 360 shades of color.

“That extension [o eyeborg] it became a part of my body and I never stopped using it. At one point, I felt that my brain and the device’s software started to connect, as I could no longer separate from each other. This became even more clear when I lay down to sleep and had a dream about electronic sounds that were colors. It was the one that my organism and the cybernetic device got together “, he explained.

After deepening his understanding of colors, Neil Harbisson started a process to relate them even more to sounds and decided to study music. Time after that, he realized that humans without achromatopsia cannot identify colors in their entirety. The cyborg’s tonal scale allows it to “see” beyond the conventional eye as in infrared and ultraviolet – with the exception of white, black and gray colors, which do not emit sounds, but which can be seen with your human eye.

With that, the Irish found fun ways to “play” with the binocular eye. “A big change for me was in the food. You can combine different types on a plate to make them sound good and you hear your favorite music in the food. Imagine how exciting it is for me to walk in a supermarket! If the salads sounded like Justin Bieber, the kids would eat more vegetables “.

Neil also likes to travel to scan cities. For him, who has traveled more than forty capitals around the world, they are not ashes. Lisbon, for example, turquoise and London red and yellow. Furthermore, the cyborg “hears” pictures. “What I like most about painting the colors of Mozart and Beethoven’s music. And I also love to hear faces. When I look at someone, I don’t see their appearance or I just hear their speech, but also what your face is saying through the notes [cada rosto tem geralmente quatro ou cinco notas dominantes]. So, I manage to put together a ‘face concert’ by adding layers and layers of these faces to create a sound sphere “, he said.

The most interesting thing about this aspect is that, when transforming colors into sounds, Neil realized that there are no white or black people, but shades of orange a little lighter than others. Beauty, according to him, is different when you see the colors, because what is considered ugly, at first, can sound quite attractive.

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