TED Radio Hour
8:16 am
Fri March 7, 2014

What's It Like To Hear Color?

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Extrasensory.

About Neil Harbisson's TEDTalk

Artist Neil Harbisson was born completely color blind. But thanks to a device attached to his head, he can now "hear" color, which allows him to experience an element that was once invisible.

About Neil Harbisson

Neil Harbisson is an artist, cyborgist and colorologist. His unique experience of color informs his artwork, which before his device the "eyeborg" was strictly black and white. By working with cyberneticist Adam Montandon, Harbisson helped design a lightweight eyepiece that he wears on his forehead that transposes the light frequencies of color hues into sound frequencies. Harbisson's artwork blurs the boundaries between sight and sound. In his sound portraits series, he listens to the colors of faces to create a microtonal chord. In the City Colours project, he expresses the capital cities of Europe in two colors.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, extrasensory - ideas on how technology and even human behavior can actually stretch our senses - what we see, what we say, what we feel, what we hear. And for Neil Harbisson, hearing has never been the problem. The problem is seeing. He can see everything, well, everything except for colors.

NEIL HARBISSON: I don't see the hue and the saturation, which is blue or red or orange.

RAZ: And that's a bit of a problem because Neil is an artist, a painter actually. And if he looks out to the world in front of him just through his eyes, it's like he's living in a black and white film. So to experience color, Neil uses his ears. I guess, like, what does red sound like?

HARBISSON: Red is F.

RAZ: How about yellow?

HARBISSON: Yellow is G.

RAZ: OK, what does green sound like?

HARBISSON: It's A. So it goes F is the lowest, then orange, then yellow, then green, then turquoise, blue and violet is the highest.

RAZ: Wow, that's really cool. OK, so how Neil does this is almost ingeniously simple. He has help from some very cool technology, and how he came about it, how it works - here's the story. Begins at age 11 in Spain where Neil grew up.

HARBISSON: Up until then, I just thought that I was confusing colors 'cause I just learned the names of colors, and I learned that the sky was blue and the grass was green. But when I was 11, I was told that I wasn't actually seeing color. I was just memorizing the names of colors.

RAZ: And that moment changed everything he thought about himself and his potential.

HARBISSON: Well, when I knew that I couldn't see color, I didn't want to wear color either so I asked my parents to buy colorless clothes - so just white, black and gray 'cause I didn't want to wear something that I couldn't see. For many periods, I just hated color and I just wanted a colorless world.

RAZ: But very quickly, Neil realized that living a colorless life, it's actually impossible to do that.

HARBISSON: Think about sport, there's color codes in sport. If you think about chemistry, there's importance in the color of the material. And color is also in literature. You find color in every book. Every three or four pages, you find the name of a color. Even with things that have nothing to do with color like Yellow Pages or Bluetooth or the green card or James Brown. Brown is in his name. It's everywhere.

RAZ: It was like colors all around you. Sounds like - almost like a horror movie, like you're running away from colors.

HARBISSON: Yeah, I tried actually. I just thought about living somewhere where color wouldn't exist, maybe in the north where there's just snow.

RAZ: Just white.

HARBISSON: Yes. One of my aims was to just move to an island where there would be no color. But even there, I'm sure it would be impossible because places like Greenland, it's usually snow there, but the island is called Greenland as well.

RAZ: So after trying to run away from it, Neil decided to embrace it. Specifically, he went to art school. And on the first day, he walked right into the Dean's office.

HARBISSON: And I said, hi, I don't see color. And he said what the hell are you doing here then?

RAZ: OK, so the school let him do all his art in black and white. But color kept coming back to him. It was like this elusive thing he couldn't crack.

HARBISSON: It became a mystery to me, color. It became an invisible element that I just wanted to perceive so I became obsessed with color. I just wanted to extend my senses and perceive color.

RAZ: And it was right around that time when Neil happened to attend a lecture by an expert on cybernetics.

HARBISSON: He was giving this talk about how we could use technology to extend our senses.

ADAM MONTANDON: And after the lecture, a young guy approached me. And he was a little bit nervous, a little bit timid.

RAZ: This is the guy who gave that lecture. His name is Adam Montandon.

MONTANDON: And he said, Adam, you're talking about changing the way that we see the world, but I don't see the world the same as everybody else. And that really got me interested.

RAZ: All right, so the thing to mention right here is that colors have frequencies, and Adam Montandon knew that. The question was...

MONTANDON: How do I translate colors into sound. I took a train ride back home after the lecture, and in the 20 minutes of the train ride, I had the very first ideas already in my head.

HARBISSON: The final result was this electronic eye that I've been wearing for almost 10 years now. It's attached to my head and it allows me to hear color.

RAZ: All right, so to give you a sense of what Neil looks like, he has this, like, antenna that loops over his head. And attached to the end is a little camera, and that is what looks at and senses colors. OK, so how does it? And, like, can you take it off?

HARBISSON: No, it's permanently attached. And then it sends these frequencies to a chip that is installed at the back of my head. And then I hear the colors through bone conductions.

RAZ: So you are constantly hearing sounds, like, every time you turn your head, you're constantly hearing things.

HARBISSON: Yeah, I'm hearing the wall now here. And when I move my head, I hear the - yeah, now I'm hearing the microphone. And everything sounds 'cause there's color absolutely everywhere.

RAZ: And so Neil's obsession with extending his senses, it became a reality. Here's how he described it on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HARBISSON: So life has changed dramatically since I hear color 'cause color is almost everywhere. So biggest changes, for example, is going to an art gallery, I can listen to a Picasso, for example. So it's like going to a concert hall 'cause I can listen to the paintings. And supermarkets, it's like going to a nightclub. It's full of different melodies, especially the aisle with cleaning products. It's just fabulous. Also, the way I dress has changed. Before, I used to dress in a way that it looked good. Now, I dress in a way that it sounds good.

(APPLAUSE)

HARBISSON: So today, I'm dressed in C major so it's quite a happy chord. If I had to go to a funeral, though, I would dress in B minor, which would be turquoise, purple and orange. Also, the way I perceive beauty has changed 'cause when I look at someone, I hear their face. So someone might look very beautiful, but sound terrible. And it might happen the opposite - the other way around. So I really enjoy creating, like, sound portraits of people. Instead of drawing someone's face, like, drawing the shape, I point at them with the eye, and I write down the different notes I hear. And then I create sound portraits. Here's some faces.

RAZ: OK, so at this point in Neil's talk, he plays some sound portraits. First, of Tom Cruise.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND PORTRAIT)

RAZ: Then there's Al Gore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND PORTRAIT)

RAZ: He shows Prince Charles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND PORTRAIT)

RAZ: And this is what Nicole Kidman sounds like.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOUND PORTRAIT)

HARBISSON: Yeah, Nicole Kidman sounds good. Some people, I would never relate, but they sound similar. Prince Charles has some similarities with Nicole Kidman. They have similar sound of eyes. So you relate people that you wouldn't relate. And you can actually...

RAZ: It's amazing because it's not just that colors become sounds, but sounds that you hear are translated into color in your mind.

HARBISSON: Yeah, that's the secondary effect so it slowly happened. When I started to hear electronic sounds, I felt color.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HARBISSON: I heard the telephone tone and it felt green 'cause it sounded just like the color green. The BBC beeps, they sound turquoise. So I started to paint music, and paint people's voices 'cause people's voices have frequencies that I relate to color.

When you transpose music to color, it's interesting to compare different artists. For example, Mozart used a lot of yellow, which is - in many of his pieces, there's a lot of G notes. Whereas Justin Bieber is very pink because there's lots of E's and also D's in his music. So you realize that artists are using more or less the same colors when they compose.

RAZ: I will never listen to Justin Bieber the same ever again. I will always think he sounds pink and very yellow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY")

RAZ: What's your favorite color, by the way?

HARBISSON: Infrared. Infrared is my favorite color. It's the lowest and it's always in unexpected places.

RAZ: What does it sound like?

HARBISSON: It's very low. It's just (humming) very low. It's actually very nice to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HARBISSON: So I got to a point when I was able to perceive 360 colors just like human vision. I was able to differentiate all the degrees of the color wheel, but then I just thought that this human vision wasn't good enough. There's many, many more colors around us that we cannot perceive, but the electronic eyes can perceive. So I decided to continue extending my color senses, and I added infrared and I added ultraviolet to the color-to-sound scale. So now I can hear colors that the human eye cannot perceive. For example, perceiving infrared is good 'cause you can actually detect if there's movement detectors in a room. I can hear if someone points at me with a remote control. And the good thing about perceiving ultraviolet is that you can hear if it's a good day or a bad day to sunbathe 'cause ultraviolet is a dangerous color, a color that can actually...

RAZ: So I read that you think of yourself as like half human, half robot, like a cyborg.

HARBISSON: Yeah, I feel that I am technology. I don't feel that I'm wearing technology. And I don't feel that I'm using technology. I feel that I am technology. I feel like the antenna is a part of my body, which is an unusual feeling, but it makes sense. When you've been wearing it for so long, your body just accept this as a part of you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HARBISSON: That's why two years ago, I created the Cyborg Foundation, which is a foundation that tries to help people become a cyborg, tries to encourage people to extend their senses by using technology as part of the body. We should all think that knowledge comes from our senses so if we extend our senses, we will consequently extend our knowledge. I think life will be much more exciting when we stop creating applications for mobile phones, and we start creating applications for our own body. I think this will be a big, big change that we'll see during this century. So I do encourage you all to think about which senses you'd like to extend. I would encourage you to become a cyborg. You won't to be alone. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Neil Harbisson. He calls himself the world's first cyborg. Check out his full talk at TED.com. I'm Guy Raz. More ideas about stretching our senses in a moment. You're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.