Rob Spence

Man's "Orwellian" Bionic Eye Camera Nears Completion

March 12, 2009 03:17 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Documentary filmmaker Rob Spence’s bionic eye camera is nearly completed. The camera highlights the rise of surveillance cameras in our daily lives.

Inspired by "The Six Million Dollar Man"

Toronto filmmaker Rob Spence, who refers to himself as the “eyeborg guy,” lost sight in his right eye as a 13-year-old while playing with his grandfather's gun. Three years ago he had the eye removed and replaced by a prosthetic one in a procedure that was videotaped and posted on his blog.

“When you completely lose an eye it is a difficult thing to let go of,” he told Wired magazine. “The eye has an emotional attachment. It is a window to your soul.”

Unable to regain sight in his right eye, Spence has now created the next best thing: a video camera for an eye that will the record what he sees, and hopefully move the same way an eye would. The Telegraph reports that Spence has been helped by top engineers, including Steve Mann, cofounder of the wearable computers research group at MIT.
The act of recording one’s life and displaying it for all to see is nothing new, but doing so with a bionic eye camera embedded in the body certainly is, according to Wired.

Spence, however, is nonchalant about his plan. “If you lose your eye and have a hole in your head, then why not stick a camera in there?” he asks. He told ABC News, “When you’re a filmmaker and you have hole in your head, and you like ‘Star Trek,’ it’s a natural progression.”

Spence says he was inspired by the 1970s television show "The Six Million Dollar Man," whose character Steve Austin "loses his eye in a crash and has it replaced by a "bionic" implant that enhances his vision," according to the Telegraph.

In his film, which will require approval from the subjects he films, Spence will "explore privacy issues and whether people are 'sleepwalking into an Orwellian society.'"

Yonggang Huang, a professor in the departments of civil and mechanical engineering at Northwestern University, called Spence’s endeavor “very clever.” “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],” he told Wired.

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Background: Life under surveillance cameras

Spence does not want to record every moment of his life, like lifecaster Justin Kan. Instead, he is going to be more selective, keeping some more private moments to himself.

His main focus is making a statement about the surveillance camera-fraught world people live in today. “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.

“It’s not that I even necessarily disagree with security cameras. It’s just where is the oversight? Who has control of this stuff?” Spence told The National Post of Canada.

The camera is of the type used in colonoscopies, and also includes a battery and a wireless transmitter, reports The Telegraph. It is not risk-free. The weight of the camera eye could distort the eye socket, stretching out the lower lid, Wired notes.

There are also technical issues to iron out. The prosthetic eye's transmitter will linked to a camera module. A transmitter placed on his belt could increase the signal strength and 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,” according to Wired.

According to ABC News, Spence has also been in contact with Tanya Vlach, who lost her eye in a 2005 car accident. She had written a blog post asking engineers to develop an eye camera for her, and Spence has called her “the 'bionic woman' to my 'bionic man,'” but Spence is much closer to fulfilling his vision.

Ocularist Phil Bowen, who is working with Spence on the project, told the National Post, “I’m looking at it as, this is a really cool experience and if we can do it with off-the-shelf technology, and it works, the next step is trying to tap that into the brain. This is actually something that can change people’s lives eventually.”

Related Topic: The rise of surveillance cameras

In June, findingDulcinea reported that Seattle officials approved $400,000 for installing surveillance cameras in city parks, and the police chief in Austin called for round-the-clock camera surveillance throughout the city by year’s end.

But nearly seven years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, inspired a marked increase in the security networks, “no systematic national research has been undertaken to assess their effectiveness,” reported MSNBC.

Several regional studies had yielded discouraging results, such as a University of California, Berkeley report that showed San Francisco’s 68 surveillance cameras had apparently not deterred criminals from committing assaults, sex offenses or robberies.

Besides the data, or lack thereof, the cameras face another challenge: privacy activists.

“To the extent that these cameras are there to protect the public safety, it’s fine, but once they cross that threshold of getting into areas where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy, they can expect to be challenged,” said Redditt Hudson, who works for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Across the Atlantic, surveillance cameras line nearly every street in the U.K., and it’s estimated that the average Brit is captured on closed circuit TV 300 times a day. In October, music producer James Sanger played a practical joke on the police by dressing up in an alien suit to catch the attention of the cameras. FindingDulcinea provided the alien-CCTV video in a “Must-See Video” feature.

Reference: Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-four" and "The Six Million Dollar Man"

The British author George Orwell (1903-1950) published "Ninteen Eighty-four," his last book, in 1949. A damning critique of totalitarianism, the book's central theme of "power and domination over others" is exercised through the police state's "perpetual surveillance and omnipresent dishonesty," led by its leader, Big Brother. Through these totalitarian methods, "every human virtue is slowly being suborned and extinguished," according to the entry on Orwell in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

In "The Six Million Dollar Man," based on the book "Cyborg" by Martin Caidin, the character of Colonel Steve Austin is a "
cybernetically enhanced astronaut turned secret agent." Not only does he have an artificial eye with enhanced vision—he also has bionic arms and legs that make him "Better. Stronger. Faster," according to the show's introduction.

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