In 2004 he became the first person in the World to be fitted with an eyeborg and to be officially recognized as a cyborg by a government. Color and the use of technology as an extension of the performer’s body and senses are the central themes in Harbisson’s work.
Neil Harbisson was born with achromatopsia, a condition that only allows him to see in black and white. He grew up in Mataró, Spain, where he studied music, dance and drama at various schools and began to compose piano pieces at the age of eleven. At the age of sixteen he started studying fine art at Institut Alexandre Satorras, where he was given special permission to use only black, white and gray colors in his works. Harbisson early works are all in black and white. Harbisson moved to Ireland in September 2001 to finish his piano studies at Dublin’s «Walton’s New School of Music». In 2002 he moved to England to study Music Composition at Dartington College of Arts.
Portrait by artist Daniel Moreno (2012)
In October 2003 in his second year at Dartington College of Arts, Harbisson attended a lecture on cybernetics, particularly on sensory extensions, given by Adam Montandon. Neil found this of immense interest and at the end of the lecture he went up to Adam to explain his condition. The eyeborg works with a head mounted camera that picks up the colors directly in front of a person, and converts them in real-time into sound waves. Neil memorised the frequencies related to each colour: high frequency hues are high-pitched, while low frequency hues sound bolder. In Vienna, they co-presented their eyeborg project, one of more than 400 entries from 29 different countries, and won the Europrix Award in Content Tools and Interface Design (2004), as well as the Innovation Award (Submerge, Bristol 2004).
In 2007, while hitch-hiking around Europe, Harbisson met Peter Kese in Ljubljana, a software developer from Kranj, Slovenia. Kese offered to develop the eyeborg even further so that Harbisson could perceive color saturation and not only color hues. After a few weeks he had developed a new eyeborg model that allowed Harbisson to perceive up to 360 different hues through microtones and saturation through different volume levels. In 2010 Matias Lizana, a student from Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya developed the eyeborg into a smaller chip as part of his final year project.
SONOCHROMATOPSIA / SONOCHROMATISM
Harbisson uses the term sonochromatism or sonochromatopsia [sono-(Latin: sound) + chromat- (Greek: color)+ -opsia (Greek: visual condition)] to define his new condition. He explains that achromatopsia can no longer define his condition because achromatopsics can not perceive nor distinguish colors. He also explains that synesthesia does not define his condition accurately because the relation between color and sound varies depending on each person, whereas sonochromatopsia is an extra sense that relates color to sound objectively and equally to everyone.