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. [...]
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." [...]
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. [...]
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. [...]
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.