Draper Spark!Lab has been open for two months now. Our current invention theme is Things that Roll. The next theme, due to begin in November, will be Things that Make Sound. For me the thought of sound produces mental images of instruments, pots and pans, car horns and stereo speakers. It also makes me think of color.
One evening my wife and I were having dinner with some friends. During the conversation one of our friends, a music teacher and appreciator of art, was describing the works of the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky. She talked about the lines, the flow, and the vibrant colors. Out of everything she said one phrase kept echoing in my mind—“you can almost hear the colors.”
A few weeks prior to this dinner I had been working with light sensors and audio output. Imagine a light-sensitive nightlight that instead of turning a light on and off played different tones based on the amount of light it detects. A few weeks after our dinner party, I was working on converting a record player to play drawings using this light sensor concept. Though the light record player output interesting patterns, it still was not playing the colors, only variation of tonal quality.
As the project moved forward I found something useful in my quest to “hear the colors”—a color sensor. Values from the color input could then be turned into audible tones. I knew that the concept was not revolutionarily new, but the idea of doing it myself was new. As I researched color sensors I was taken down an unexpected path—cyborgs. The artist Neil Harbisson was born totally color blind. In 2003 Neil began a project, along with a computer scientist, to hear color. Eventually he had a chip implanted in his head, that created vibration in his bones so that the color became audible though his skull. Color converted to sound.
My current project, though not as tech heavy as being a cyborg, is a new version of the color record player I created a few years back. Using low cost off-the-shelf components and some computer coding, the colors have begun to sing. With a little tweaking and some functional strengthening this activity will certainly be ready for a November debut. Given that the library of pitches I am pulling from has over 50 tones, our visitors should soon have the opportunity to create a symphony of art in full color sound.