'Bionic' Pair Seeks Webcams for Eyes

An artist and filmmaker want to trade prosthetic eyes for cameras.

November 18, 2008, 8:06 PM

Nov. 19, 2008— -- A San Francisco artist sent ripples through the blogosphere when she posted a "call for engineers" on her Web site, asking for advice on replacing an artificial eye with a webcam.

But now it seems that the bionic Eve has found her Adam, so to speak.

On Tuesday, a Canadian documentary filmmaker launched a blog to announce that he is already pursuing that goal and plans to have a working prototype by Christmas.

"Like Tanya Vlach, the 'bionic woman' to my 'bionic man,' I lost an eye and want to replace it with a wireless webcam eye. I chatted with her and I think we are going to work together," Rob Spence wrote on his blog.

"As far as I'm concerned everyone who has a fake eye should turn it into a video camera," said Spence, 36, who lost his eye when he was 11 years old. He was playing with a gun at his grandfather's farm in Ireland; it backfired and severely injured his eye. Years later, he had his eye removed.

"When you're a filmmaker and you have hole in your head, and you like 'Star Trek,' it's a natural progression," he told ABCNews.com.

In talking to Vlach, he continued, he recognized his desire to turn a loss into an opportunity.

"As soon as I have a working prototype, I'd be happy to give her one," he said. "She went through the same exact thought process that I went through."

'An Experiment in Wearable Technology'

After Vlach lost her left eye in a 2005 car accident, the now-35-year-old artist launched a blog to document her experience.

Titled One-Eyed, the site is about "the future of sight, a chronicling of her adjustment to a monocular life, and why she looks so damn good in an eye patch," she writes.

A self-proclaimed "sci-fi geek," Vlach was intrigued by the possibilities that current technology could offer her.

"Ever since my accident I've been fascinated about having a bionic eye," she told ABCNews.com.

Recognizing that miniature cameras abound 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 that 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 said.

Calling it "an experiment in wearable technology, cybernetics and perception," Vlach posted a challenge on her blog, asking engineers for help in creating a camera that could be implanted in her artificial eye.

The camera would not restore her sight, but would allow her to record her life from her lost eye's point of view. Vlach said she'll decide how to use the video once she's closer to actually having the device.

Once Wired magazine's Kevin Kelly mentioned it on his blog, her post quickly caused a blogospheric stir.

Vlach said she expected some attention but has been surprised by the more than 100 blog comments and 50 or so e-mails she's accumulated since her post went live last week.

But one of the most promising message she received has been the one from Spence.

As luck would have it, the Toronto-based filmmaker is actually not so far from Vlach this week, attending an imaging technology conference in Monterey, Calif.

The purpose of his trip? To make a presentation about his plans to enhance his artificial eye.

On Thursday, Vlach said, she plans to meet with Spence for the first time to learn more about his project. Although it's likely that the two will work together in some way, she said, she has other interesting responses she plans to review before making a decision.

Is a Bionic Eye Really Possible?

In her original blog post, Vlach included a list of specifications she'd gathered from her research on miniature cameras.

She challenged engineers to envision a Bluetooth type eye-cam with a remote trigger that would allow her to blink to zoom, focus and switch on and off.

Engineers and tech enthusiasts responded with a flurry of suggestions, including copying technology that enables endoscope cameras in pills that give doctors high-resolution video of a patient's intestines.

But many supporters also voiced a few key concerns: namely, powering the device and creating enough room in the prosthetic to hold a camera, a power source and a transmitter.

Spence, however, said he has been working with Steve Mann, an MIT graduate and University of Toronto engineering professor, to overcome these issues.

A pioneer in wearable computing, Mann has lived for the last 30 years as a "cyborg," with a wireless video camera that allows him to transmit the daily events of his life to the Internet.

The duo said they are four to six months away from a prototype that meets Vlach's specifications.

Spence said that his ocularist has created a prosthetic roomy enough to house all the key components and that they are experimenting with batteries and wireless power.

He said they are also still tinkering with a prosthetic that will open, so that batteries can be inserted, and seal securely.

Eye-Shaped Cameras

For their part, eye experts say an "eye cam" would pose few medical risks.

William Danz, Vlach's ocularist, said he supports the project and looks forward to creating the prosthetic encasement for the new technology.

Dr. Eli Peli, a senior scientist at the Boston-based Schepens Eye Research Institute and professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, also said that the medical risks were minor.

However, he questioned the practicality of the pursuit.

"[Vlach] says that she wants a camera mounted in her prosthesis to compensate for visual field loss. But when you lose an eye, you lose just a little," he said.

So little, he said, that in every country in the world you're allowed to drive with only one eye.

Another limitation Peli raised concerned the shape of camera sensors currently available.

Flat microchips commercially used as light sensors for cameras would distort the picture. Viewers would get a "fish-eye" view, he said, resembling the image seen through door peepholes.

But hope may still exist with a team of engineers in the Midwest that, this summer, published its work on eye-shaped cameras in the journal Nature.

Instead of using a typical flat microchip as a sensor, John Rogers and Yonggang Huang, professors of engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern University, respectively, developed a sensor that is a flexible mesh wire of wire-connected light detectors.

"We are the first ones to demonstrate that this is possible. You can pretty much use the camera on any shape you want," Huang told ABCNews.com.

He also said that powering the device would be a significant hurdle. But, Huang continued, because their technology transfers flat electronic components to any curved surface, like the human eye, it could be a perfect fit.

"With our technology this should be very possible," he said.

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