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Private Eyes Are Watching You…

Rob Spence and his eye, courtesy of Rob Spence.
Rob Spence’s story is one we can all relate to. At age eleven the documentary filmmaker from Toronto (remember Let’s All Hate Toronto?) was on his grandfather’s farm in Ireland when he picked up his shotgun, aimed it at a pile of cow dung, and pulled the trigger. The target was hit (hooray!), but sadly the gun backfired, blinding Spence in one eye. He later had the eye removed and, of course, had the entire procedure videotaped and posted on his blog.
Now that he’s got the extra space, Spence wants to put a camera in there. “You’re a filmmaker and you have a hole in your head and you just kind of want to take advantage of that,” he explains. Spence is currently working with University of Toronto cyborg super-prof Steve Mann, whose own work has dealt with “sousveillance“—a term he coined to describe the act of first-person video recording, in opposition to the ubiquity of CCTV surveillance cameras. Or, as Spence puts it, “everyone is always filming us…so who’s got the undersight for all this oversight?”

Steve Mann looking serious, by danepstein.
The two have been working away furiously in the lab to develop a prosthetic eye that will contain a wireless video camera and they’re now two months away from their first prototype. Provided all goes well, Spence plans on using it to shoot a film dealing with the intersection of surveillance and humanity he’s developing with the National Film Board of Canada. But no, the story doesn’t end there! In addition to the challenges of building a mini-camera into a fake eye, documenting the entire process, and working to produce a film at the end of it all, he has had to deal with the unlikely event of a second eyeless artist coming out of the woodwork and seeking to develop her own eye cam (drama!).
Tanya Vlach lost her eye in a car crash in 2005 and posted a challenge for a working eye cam to engineers on her blog. Wired magazine’s Kevin Kelly broke the story and it became a hit in the technology circles of the net. “I was playing poker and holding my cards a bit closer until I had a working prototype, whereas what she’s done is created a blog from the very beginning,” Spence points out, adding, “I’m making the eye. She’s talking about making the eye, I’m actually in the lab with Steve Mann.”
Is there an eyeborg battle brewing? Perhaps some sort of webcam reality show meets laser eye death match (though we’ve been informed that lasers aren’t planned for Spence’s eye cam)? Only the future knows. Yesterday, Spence and Vlach attended a gathering of digital camera producers in Monterrey, Florida to seek out the technology that can make their respective visions (pardon the pun) of a working eye cam a reality.
To put this erudite discussion of replacement eyes in perspective, Spence notes that “most people think of prosthetic eyes as just a bowl of glass like Uncle Milton used to pull out at the wedding,” which obviously led us into a chat about whether his has ever come out inadvertently (oh, come on, we know you were wondering):

Well, it has come out before in a particularly fast disco spin. I hosted a fondue party with a ’70s theme, and there was a disco dancing contest, which I ended up winning in a humiliating way—because I did a really quick spin, because I am also a hot dancer in addition to being a documentary maker. [The eye] actually fell out of my head and hit a girl in the face. It was weird because all the girls at this little fondue party I was having reacted as if it was a real eye…and it rolled under the couch. Their reaction was “oh my god, we’ve only got seconds,” and all the girls sprung into action, went under the couch and handed it to me. At this point I’d been humiliated, I went back to the bathroom, washed it off, and put it back in…so yes, it comes in and out.

Check out Rob Spence’s Eyeborg Blog for complete coverage of his quest for an eye cam, video documentation of his experiences along the way, and a run down of Eye 4 an Eye, the documentary he is producing to explore the implications of putting a video camera inside a man’s eye—apart from the obvious pornographic ones.


  • Gauldar

    Interesting concept, I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.

  • Astin

    When I saw the article on Tanya, I immediately though of Steve Mann. Then I realized that working with Steve can be a… frustrating experience at times. He’s a great guy if he likes you and what you’re doing. He’s got some fantastic ideas as well. Implementation is often scattershot though, with a lot of hacking instead of solid design.
    So I hope Rob is heavily involved and ready to hammer away at Steve as needed. Of course, some conflict will make the documentary more interesting.

  • ked

    I think there was a woman on Boing Boing a week ago who was also looking for someone to help here with an eye/camera hack. Maybe they could compare notes.

  • ked

    her not here (never comment pre coffee)

  • Svend

    Eye Am A Camera?

  • Christopher Merlot

    I would have some privacy concerns about this–if one is in an area of CCTV coverage there should be some signs indicating the presence of cameras. This guy wants to walk around filming people without concent and in a way that will not be obvious–like holding a camera would be–which I would see as a violation of privacy laws, especially if ever intends to broadcast his ‘film.’

  • rek

    If he wants to broadcast doesn’t he need consent forms?