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Futurist Forum

This Cyborg Hears Colors With His Skull

Neil Harbisson has a disorder that leads him to see the world in black and white. But with a little body modification, he can still sense them with his cybernetic third eye. That’s right: This man has a cybernetic third eye.

Neil Harbisson’s eyes can only see in black and white. But since 2004, he has been able to hear color, thanks to a cybernetic third eye he wears strapped to his head 24 hours a day. As reports, it’s called the "eyeborg":

It transposes color into a continuous electronic beep, exploiting the fact that both light and sound are made up of waves of various frequencies. Red, at the bottom of the visual spectrum and with the lowest frequency, sounds the lowest, and violet, at the top, sounds highest. A chip at the back of Harbisson’s head performs the necessary computations, and a pressure-pad allows color-related sound to be conducted to Harbisson’s inner ear through the vibration of his skull, leaving his outer ears free for normal noise. Harbisson, who has perfect pitch, has learned to link these notes back to the colors that produced them.

Harbisson’s brain doesn’t convert those sounds back into visual information, so he still doesn’t know what the color blue looks like. But he knows what it sounds like. "Before, I dressed in a way that looked good," he told a TED talk audience, "Now I dress in a way that sounds good." The pink blazer, blue shirt and yellow pants he was wearing for the talk formed a C Major chord.

This may seem like an abstract model of human color perception at best, but in some ways it actually surpasses the real thing. In addition to distinguishing 360 different hues, he can hear ultraviolet and infrared. "The good thing about seeing ultraviolet is you can tell if it is a good day or a bad day to sunbathe," he said.

It’s this extension of human ability that prompted Harbisson to found the Cyborg Foundation. The organization is working on projects like a "fingerborg" that replaces a finger with a camera, a "speedborg" that conveys how fast an object is moving with earlobe vibrations and—according to a promotional film—a "cybernetic nose" that allows people to perceive smells through electromagnetic signals.

In addition to helping people become cyborgs, the foundation claims to fight for cyborg rights. This appears to be a cause better suited to science-fiction, but given the nascent backlash against wearers of Google glasses, this may be a cause that is simply ahead of its time. Exchange the language of "cyborgs" for "augmented reality," and he would fit right in at Google[x].

On the other hand, Harbisson does want to install his eyeborg into his skull—permanently—and find a way to recharge it with his blood. To our knowledge, even Sergey Brin isn’t going that far…yet.

If you any have questions you want to ask this cyborg, Magazine is hosting a Twitter chat with him today: "Check out our Twitter feed (@NautilusMag) on May 31 at 2pm ET, and come prepared with questions for Harbisson about our posthuman future."