Colourful artist: on a slightly different wavelength


Neil Harbisson has the condition achromatopsia, a hereditary vision disorder which affects one in 33,000 people. One of the effects of achromatopsia is monochromatism - the inability to perceive colour. To him the world was black and white.

In 2004, the completely colour blind artist and pianist, who previously had painted only in black and white, became the world's first person to be fitted with an eyeborg, enabling him to paint in colour.

The eyeborg enables people with visual impairments, and even total blindness, to experience the world in colour.

Adam Montandon, founder of Britain's HMC MediaLab, has built a system that hijacks Neil Harbisson's other senses by allowing him to "see" colour through his ears.

It works with a head- mounted camera that reads the colours directly in front of a person and converts them in real-time, via computer, into sound waves.

It uses a physical model of transposing light into sound. Although light waves are far too high to hear, it is possible to mathematically transpose them down until they sit within the audible wavelength.

So the lowest colour in the spectrum (dark red) becomes the lowest note in the scale, and the highest colour in the spectrum (violet) becomes the highest note. HMC created colour to sound conversion software that would dynamically scale the colours from a miniature camera into audible frequencies.

Harbisson receives a note in his ear corresponding to the colours in front of him. Within 15 minutes of using the system he was able to instantly recognise simila- rities and differences between hues, something he had never been able to do.

Harbisson is now able to paint with a full spectrum of colours incredibly accurately, as he wears his eyeborg prosthesis 24 hours a day.