Surgical implant will allow cyborg artist to see colors through sound

For years now, colorblind artist Neil Harbisson has used a special head-mounted device to help him translate colors into sound. Not content to wear it on the head for the rest of his life, however, Harbisson has decided to have it surgically implanted. The upcoming procedure is part of the European artist's larger effort to get people accustomed to the idea of cybernetic implants.

Harbisson was born with a rare condition called achromatopsia, which limits his color perception to black and white. Eight years ago he developed a device that helped him correlate sound frequencies to the wavelengths of colors. At first he used headphones, but he has increasingly incorporated the device into his body. Even his passport photo shows him wearing the device — what he calls the eyeborg.

Surgical implant will allow cyborg artist to see colors through sound

It works by extending an antenna-like arm from the nape of his neck over to the front of his forehead. A single sensor turns those colors that are immediately in front of Harbisson into sounds. Writing for The New York Times, Jennifer 8. Lee writes,

Mr. Harbisson's current eyeborg is pressed against the base of his head with extremely high pressure, which allows the sounds to reverberate along his skull to his eardrums. But his new eyeborg, to be implanted in September, will be connected to his body through three screws in his head - two to support the antenna and electronic chip, and a third for the sound to be passed into his skull, which will vibrate with the sound. He expects it will take about two months for the bone to heal around the implant.

Mr. Harbisson gave details of his plans last week in an interview at the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh, where he gave a talk on stage while wearing an outfit of pink jacket, blue shirt and yellow pants (a "C major" chord, as he describes the colors).

The procedure is scheduled to be performed at the Germans Trias i Pujol hospital outside Barcelona, the city where Mr. Harbisson lives. Mr. Harbisson, who first approached doctors there in April 2011, said it had taken him over a year to persuade the hospital administration to allow the surgery to be performed. "I had to talk to the bioethical team," he said. Many other hospitals he approached thought his proposal was a joke. "They were the only ones that were really interested," he said.

Harbisson is a bit of a cyborg ambassador. Back in 2010 he founded the Cyborg Foundation, along with his friend, Moon Ribas, to create cybernetic extensions to the body and to "defend cyborg rights."

You can read Lee's entire article at the New York Times.

Top image via Elespectador. Inset image via New York Times.