As a kid growing up in Barcelona, Spain, Neil Harbisson could tell you that the sky was blue, the grass was green, and a lemon was yellow. But he couldn’t tell you exactly what all those descriptions really meant. Born with a rare inherited condition similar to the one that plagued the Pacific islanders neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about in The Island of the Colorblind, Harbisson sees only in shades of gray, and had simply memorized the colors he thought he was supposed to know. But it wasn’t until he was 11 years old that he learned that he didn’t perceive the world in the same way as most people.
“I noticed that other students at school could identify colors easier than me,” he recalls. “Then I knew there was a problem with color.”
A decade later, as a music composition student at the Dartington College of Arts in England, Harbisson discovered there was hope that he might see things differently. In 2003, he attended a lecture about using technology to change the way we see the world. After the talk, Harbisson approached the speaker, young cybernetics innovator Adam Montandon, then at the University of Plymouth, to describe his condition and ask if there might be a way to help him perceive color.