Rob Spence looks you straight in the eye when he talks. So it’s a little unnerving to imagine that soon one of his hazel-green eyes will have a tiny wireless video camera in it that records your every move.
The eye he’s considering replacing is not a working one — it’s a prosthetic eye he’s worn for several years. Spence, a 36-year-old Canadian filmmaker, is not content with having one blind eye. He wants a wireless video camera inside his prosthetic, giving him the ability to make movies wherever he is, all the time, just by looking around.
“If you lose your eye and have a hole in your head, then why not stick a camera in there?” he asks.
Spence, who calls himself the “eyeborg guy,” will not be restoring his vision. The camera won’t connect to his brain. What it will do is allow him to be a bionic man where technology fuses with the human body to become inseparable. In effect, he will become a “little brother,” someone who’s watching and recording every move of those in his field of vision.
If successful, Spence will become one of a growing number of lifecasters. From early webcam pioneer Jennifer Kaye Ringley, who created JenniCam, to Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell, to commercial lifecasting ventures Ustream.tv and Justin.tv, many people use video and internet technology to record and broadcast every moment of their waking lives. But Spence is taking lifecasting a step further, with a bionic eye camera that is actually embedded in his body.
“The eyes are like no other part of the body,” says Spence. “It’s what you look into when you fall in love with somebody and [influences] whether you trust someone or not. Now with a video camera in there, it will change how people see and perceive me.”
It’s an interesting and innovative idea, says Yonggang Huang, a professor in the departments of civil and mechanical engineering at Northwestern University. Huang, along with University of Illinois professor John Rogers has developed a web of micro-sensors to enable eye-shaped cameras. Huang is not involved in Spence’s project.
“It’s very clever,” says Huang of Spence’s quest. “It is not a true eye but it provides the way for people to record images in life as they see [them] and store [them].”
Spence lost his right eye at 13 while playing with his grandfather’s gun on a visit to Ireland. “I wanted to shoot a pile of cowshit,” he says. “I wasn’t holding the gun properly and it backfired, causing a lot of trauma to the eye.”
After the accident, he returned to Belleville, a small town two hours east of Toronto, where he grew up. Spence became technically blind in the eye, and over the years, his vision deteriorated completely. Three years ago he had his eye removed and a prosthetic one inserted. Ever the filmmaker, he even made a movie out of his surgery. But it wasn’t an easy decision.
“When you completely lose an eye it is a difficult thing to let go of,” he says. “The eye has an emotional attachment. It is a window to your soul.”
Spence wore an eye patch for a while, which he says looked cool. But once he started thinking about having a camera in his eye, Spence got in touch with Steve Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto. Mann is one of the experts in the world of wearable computing and cyborgs — organisms that blend natural and artificial systems.
“There are a lot of challenges in this,” says Mann, “from actually building a camera system that works, to sending and receiving images, to getting the correct shape of the camera.”
Even in the age of miniaturization, getting a wireless video camera into a prosthetic eye isn’t easy. The shape of the prosthetic is the biggest limitation: In Spence’s case, it’s 9-mm thick, 30-mm long and 28-mm high.
While that might seem like plenty of room in an age when digital cameras are squeezed into unimaginably slim and compact phones, it actually isn’t. The average area available inside a prosthetic eye for an imaging sensor is only about 8 square mm, explains Phil Bowen, an ocularist who is working with Spence. Also, a digital camera has many more components than the visible lens and the sensor behind it, including the power supply and image-processing circuitry. Getting a completely self-contained camera module to fit into the tiny hollow of a prosthetic eye is a significant engineering challenge.
That’s where Professors Huang and Rogers’ research could come in handy. Three months ago, the duo published a paper that showed how a new sensor built out of a flexible mesh of wire-connected pixels could replace the traditional flat imaging chip as the light sensor for a camera. The mesh is made from many of the same materials as a standard digital-camera sensor, but it has the ability to conform to convoluted, irregular surfaces — like the back of a synthetic eyeball.
“Our cameras might more naturally integrate with a prosthetic eye, due to their hemispherical shapes,” says Rogers. “One might also argue that they can provide a more human-like perception of the world.”
Then there’s the question of how the prosthetic eyeball (the outer shell for the camera) will be made. The eyeball chassis has to close shut and be watertight.
Traditional prosthetic eyes are single pieces made with polymethyl-methacrylate (PMMA), a flexible polymer that is also used in dentures. To fit a camera in, Bowen redesigned the prosthetic eye into two pieces that could snap shut.
But with a camera inside there’s something new to worry about. The modified prosthetic eye will be heavier than traditional ones and that could affect the eye socket, says Bowen. “The weight might stretch out the lower lid,” he says, potentially disfiguring the face.
Assuming the size, weight and water-tightness issues can be solved, Spence has a vague idea of how he thinks it can work. A camera module will have to be connected to a transmitter inside the prosthetic eye that can broadcast the captured video footage. To boost the signal, he says he can wear another transmitter on his belt. A receiver attached to a hard drive in a backpack could capture that information and then send it to another device that uploads everything to a web site in real time.
If it sounds rather cumbersome and complicated, it is. Spence and his team are still working to find the right answers.
He hasn’t been able to get the bigger camera companies to work with him. “Part of problem is if you cold call somebody it sounds like there is a maniac on the other end of the phone,” he says. “This whole idea confuses and overwhelms most people.”
“Right now I am begging, borrowing and stealing camera modules from different cameras to make a stage one prototype,” says Spence.
Spence is not the only one attempting to implant a video camera in his eye socket — artist Tanya Vlach is working on a similar project — but if he’s successful he will be more than just another cyborg. The documentary film he’s making about his efforts, plus the experience of living with a video camera in his eye, could help build greater awareness about the culture of surveillance in our society today, he says.
“No one is going to ban surveillance cameras,” says Spence. “It’s more about being aware of it. It’s about giving a shit in the first place.”
Having a bionic eye doesn’t mean Spence will be recording all the time, he says. Unlike lifecaster Justin Kan, Spence is not promising to broadcast all of his life’s moments. (Even Kan reneged on his promise within a few short months, as soon as a romantic opportunity presented itself.)
Spence is willing to turn off his camera in spaces such as gyms, theaters or private events. But he will be making many of those decisions on the spur, every day. “I wouldn’t behave that differently than someone with a cellphone today,” he says.
Even though his project is still in its early stages, Spence says many people have already told him they wouldn’t be comfortable being filmed.
“People are more scared of a center-left documentary maker with an eye than the 400 ways they are filmed every day at the school, the subway, the mall,” he says.
He hopes he will help get people thinking about privacy, how surveillance cameras and the footage they record are being used and accessed.
“Sometimes I run a little experiment,” he says. “I tell people around me, ‘Did you know there are 11,000 new video cameras being installed in our country every day?’ Then I will exaggerate and say there are 50,000 new video cameras going in everyday,” says Spence. “Most of the times I get the same answer: ‘That’s interesting. Now what’s for lunch?’ or ‘The weather is nice today.’
“I wonder what those people will say when they are staring back into the video camera in my eye?”