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Isaac Newton first related colour frequencies to sound. Now, over three centuries later, cybernetic technology has taken this relationship to a whole new level
Have you ever thought of what it might be like to hear colours, or wear your favourite song to a party? With the integration of the human body and modern technology, virtual synesthesia is making this futuristic fantasy a reality.
Neil Harbisson, who is British/Catalan, was born completely colour blind and could only perceive the world in black and white. In 2007 an antenna was directly connected to his brain, converting colour frequencies into sound vibrations. Today the artist and cyborg activist perceives colours, transformed into tones, creating a virtual synesthetic experience.
“It’s impossible to ignore colour. Even if you don’t see it, you are reminded every day that colour exists, whether it be through colour-coded maps, physical descriptions, temperature markers, and so on,” Harbisson explains.
Using wearable technology Harbisson is now able to hear, through vibrations in the occipital bone in the back and lower part of his skull, light frequencies, by memorising the corresponding tone of each colour, allowing him to detect colour within the world around him.
“When I hear colours it’s natural, it comes from inside my head, not outside. It’s like when you hear sounds in a dream,” he explains.
This virtual synesthesia, Harbisson says, has completely transformed his life. For example, his experience of walking around supermarkets has changed drastically. “It’s like going to a nightclub now,” he says, “as it’s where I see the most colours.”
Moreover, “all painters have become composers, and I can actually wear songs to parties,” says Harbisson.
His cybernetic augmentation of his own living organism makes Harbisson a cyborg, a title, which he enthusiastically welcomes. “I didn’t want to wear technology, I wanted to become technology,” he says.
This unity between body and technology means that Harbisson is now officially 7cm taller, and that he is allowed to remain wearing his artificial headwear in his official British passport photo. An acknowledgement of his cyborg status.
“We are at an exciting time in history, I do not feel that I am using technology, but that I am technology and this has allowed me to reconnect with nature. I believe that the unity between humans and technology is natural and that we, as a species, will slowly accept it. In fact, being a cyborg, I actually feel closer to animals and nature, not to robots and machines,” says Harbisson.
He believes that his antenna allows him to more closely relate to insect species.
Árni Gunnar Ásgeirsson is a University of Copenhagen synesthesia researcher. He agrees that Harbisson’s experiment with his senses is very interesting, but contends to the University Post that it is difficult to say whether Harbisson’s experience should strictly be called synesthesia.
According to Ásgeirsson, Harbisson’s experience of tones, through antenna stimulation and programmed software, is certainly not synesthesia. Rather, Harbisson is experiencing a translation of the physical reality, while synesthete’s have experiences of a non-physical reality.
“The most interesting thing for me, as a synesthesia researcher, is what Mr. Harbisson says about the long-term implications of using his antenna. He claims that he experiences music in color. It is extremely difficult to relate to that statement, since he has never actually experienced visual colors, but it is not inconceivable that Harbisson has, over the years of wearing his antenna, formed his own brand of associative categories, based on his unique experiences with translated sensory associations,” says Ásgeirsson.
Harbisson’s address was part of ‘The Cyborg Experience: Neil Harbisson,’ a live event at Design Museum Danmark, as part of the CPH:DOX documentary film festival, and audience members had many questions about virtual synaesthesia and cybernetics,
Harbisson obliged one of the audience subsequently by ‘reading’ their faces. He is able to create an Mp3 of a person’s unique facial colour combinations, by amplifying the sounds that he hears in his head, and then transferring them into musical format.
According to Harbisson, each face sounds different.
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