Eyeborg: Canadian Rob Spence Replaced Eye With Video Camera

A Canadian man has replaced his own false eye with a camera-eye of his own invention – and will let the world see what he sees via a live video link.

Filmmaker Rob Spence shows a prosthetic eye with a red LED. Spence is working with an engineer to create a prosthetic embedded with a wireless video camera. Photo: Eyeborg Project

Canadian filmmaker Rob Spence, who lost his right eye in a shooting accident on his grandfather’s farm when he was a teenager, is determined to replace his artificial eye with a video camera and said he’s almost there. And instead of using his enhanced ability for secret agent-type espionage, he wants to use it for his art.

Like the fictional bionic man, 36-years-old Rob Spence decided some years ago to build a miniature camera that could be fitted inside his false eye. A prototype was completed last year, and was named by Time magazine as one of the best inventions of 2009.

The bionic eye is simply designed, and components are constantly changing. It basically contains a 1.5mm-square, low-res video camera, a small round printed circuit board, video transmitter, and a 3-volt rechargeable Varta microbattery.

The components are contained in resealable clear acrylic used in false eyes, but it has two holes for wires to recharge the battery. “I can recharge my eye via USB off my laptop,” says Spence.

It is not connected to his brain, and has not restored his vision. Instead of it the camera records everything that he sees. More than that, it contains a wireless transmitter, which allows him to transmit what he is seeing in real time to a computer.

Filmmaker Rob Spence shows a prosthetic eye with a red LED. Spence is working with an engineer to create a prosthetic embedded with a wireless video camera. Photo: Eyeborg Project

The feed from the eye-cam is picked up by a wire antenna that Spence held to his cheek, and relayed to a flatscreen TV in the background. The prototype in the video provides low-res images, but an authentic experience of literally seeing through someone else’s perspective. The image is somewhat jerky and overhung by huge eyelashes; a blink throws everything out of whack for a half-second.

The Eyeborg prototype in the video, the third, can only work for an hour an a half on a fully charged battery. Its transmitter is quite weak, so Spence has to hold a receiving antenna to his cheek to get a clear signal. He muses that he should build a Seven of Nine-style eyepiece to house it. He’s experimenting with a new prototype that has a stronger transmitter, other frequencies and a booster on the receiver.

“Unlike you humans, I can continue to upgrade,” Spence quips. “Yes, I’m a cyborg. But I think that any technology — even clothing — makes people cyborgs. In today’s world, you have Facebook and camera eyes. Tomorrow, we’ll have collective consciousness and the Borg. It’s a collective robot consciousness. I believe that’s a genuine modern concern.”

Rob Spence demonstrates his bionic camera eye. A wireless camera in a specially designed prosthetic relays a video feed to an antenna that he presses to his cheek. The feed is shown on the screen behind him as a colleague films. Photo: Eyeborg Project

However, as incredulous as it may seem, Rob Spence isn’t the only one-eyed creative looking to replace an artificial eye with a webcam. In November, Tanya Vlach, a San Francisco artist sent ripples through the blogosphere when she posted a “call for engineers” on her Web site, asking for advice on a bionic eye.

After Vlach lost her left eye in a 2005 car accident, the 35-year-old artist launched a blog to document her experience. Titled One-Eyed, the site is about “the future of sight, a chronicle of her adjustment to a monocular life.”

Given the preponderance of miniature cameras in cell phones, webcams and other mobile cameras, she wondered whether a camera small enough to fit in her prosthetic eye might also exist. Vlach said she’s been working on a documentary about her accident and researching the eye-cam idea for more than a year.

“It was my way of recreating the eye that I lost,” she told in November. Although the two have separate projects, they’re in contact and, Spence said, are actually planning a “one-eyed party” in San Francisco for later this year.

The Spence’s eye was built with the help of Steve Mann, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert in “cyborg” technology – the blending of natural and artificial systems with technology. Calling himself “the Eyeborg guy,” Rob Spence also has a version with a red LED light in the eye, like the robot from the Terminator films.

And now as a film-maker, Mr Spence wants to use the camera to record “truer” conversations than would be possible with a handheld camera. “When you bring a camera, people change,” he says. “I wouldn’t be disarming at all. I would just be some dude. It’s a much truer conversation.”

His subjects would only become aware that they were being filmed after the conversation was over. Then he would give them a chance to sign, or not sign, a release form permitting him to use the footage. He said: “There’s ethical issues with that, but I am a filmmaker. If you’re averse to it, that’s fine, don’t sign the release form. I won’t put you in the documentary.”

For the last 30 years, Steve Mann has been living as a “cyborg” glogger – short for cyborg logger – with a wireless video camera that allows him to transmit the daily events of his life to the Internet. Mann said about 30,000 gloggers around the world use a transmitting video camera strapped to some part of their body to broadcast the events of their lives with others via the Web.

Like Spence, they want to be able to document their lives and share their perspectives. But instead of writing about their experiences on blogs, they simply share the video. “Glogging has been around a lot longer than blogging,” Mann said. And, Spence said, it has a special effect on the imagination. “It taps into some kind of immature pop culture supero hero fantasy,” he said. [Eyeborg and Eyeborg Project via Daily Telegraph (UK) and Spectrum]

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