Tuesday 20 November 2018

From black and white to colour . . . eyes opened to sound of socks

Bryony Gordonin London

NEIL Harbisson is, quite literally, a man who has always viewed life in black and white.

The 22-year-old Spaniard, who moved to Totnes in south Devon in 2003, was born with achromatopsia, a rare condition that affects only one person in 33,000 and causes monochromatism, or complete colour blindness. But last year, he was able to see - or, more accurately, hear - colours for the first time.

Harbisson has been fitted with a machine that turns colours into soundwaves, with a different sound representing each hue. The Eye-Borg, as it is known, features a head-mounted digital camera that reads the colours in front of Harbisson and converts them, via a laptop he carries in a backpack, into sound.

A scale of musical tones represents the spectrum of colours - light hues are high-pitched, while darker colours sound bolder. It is, in a way, forced synaesthesia; its creator, 23-year-old digital multimedia expert Adam Montandon, describes the invention as "like hearing a colour wheel".

Harbisson has worn the Eye-Borg for every waking moment since last March, when he became the first person to be fitted with one.

"I used to get jam mixed up with tomato sauce, and orange juice confused with apple juice. I had to ask people what a particular food was, or smell it, and when I was young, lots of people thought that was slightly odd."

At school, he was teased by classmates, who thought he was just being lazy every time he asked one of them to pass the red paint in an art class, or pick out a blue pen. He dressed exclusively in black and white. "What was the point in wearing something I couldn't appreciate?" he asks.

When we meet, Harbisson is wearing a bright orange jumper. Red socks poke out from under his jeans. These, he says, were the first colourful clothes he bought. "I walked past them in a shop, and thought, 'I like the sound of those socks, I'll buy them'," he smiles.

The most dramatic impact of the Eye-Borg has been on his work. Remarkably, Harbisson chose to study art when he moved to Devon. Until he was fitted with Montandon's invention, his canvases were daubed with only black, white and charcoals. Now, he has a palette of brightly coloured paints, and his work is full of bold and vibrant tones.

"I now see my art as composing music on canvas," says Harbisson, who also now "hears colours" when listening to music - he recently went to a concert where the female performer sang shades of yellow and, he says, the whirr of his Hoover is red.

"Before, I was slightly afraid of my art. But now, I am having so much fun with it, painting masses of objects that all have sounds."

He is very excited about the possibilities that the invention holds for other visually impaired people. "One day, blind people could paint through sound, and perhaps even the deaf could compose music using colour."

In the meantime, he intends to wear the Eye-Borg all day, every day. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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