In May, Rob Spence was at a Toronto restaurant with his brother-in-law and his wife. A server turned to the 44-year-old filmmaker to ask for his order. What stared back at her was a man with a glowing red right eye, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator.
According to Spence, the server visibly struggled not to look at him or say anything about his glowing cyborg eye, and simply asked, "What would you like to order, sir?"
The camera-equipped eye recorded his brief interaction with the server as Spence demonstrated his cyborg eye to his dinner companions, he told me in an interview in Toronto several days before his appearance at FutureWorld, a conference on robotics and high-tech prostheses held at OCAD University in June.
"In this city, people are very polite, and don't want to call attention to my eye. But in Brazil, for example, they wanted to engage with me," he said.
Privacy concerns have swirled around wearable devices that record what the wearer sees, like Google Glass. Spence said his project isn't comparable, since he can't use his camera for a long time and a red LED light alerts others when he's recording. Still, he gets defensive when asked about the ethical boundaries of recording people without their permission.
"There is a competing tension between my right to replace my eye that I lost versus others' rights to privacy," he said. "Am I not allowed to put an eye camera in my own body?"
Spence, who lives in Coburg, Ontario, calls himself 'Eyeborg' and he isn't far off: legally blind since accidentally shooting himself in the eye as a child, he came up with an idea to build a tiny camera that could fit into his right eye and record everything he saw.
He doesn't wear the camera all the time. It can only shoot a maximum of 30 minutes before the battery runs out of juice. During our interview, he wore an eyepatch, the same gear he sported during his talk at the Toronto futurists' conference.
Near the end of his talk, he took off the eye patch, placed the specialized camera in his eye, and briefly recorded the audience as the footage aired on a TV screen onstage. The audience of around 120 people gasped and applauded.
Spence's eye camera uses an analogue rather than digital signal, thanks to its miniscule transmitter. What he records can be shuttled to another screen, like a baby monitor or a TV.
"It works well enough to screw around at cyborg conferences," said Spence, half-laughing. He boasted a zany sense of humour, both in our interview and on stage at FutureWorld. He doesn't take his disability too seriously, he told me.
At these conferences, it can feel like a "circus, where I'm the freak," he said. "But I don't feel like a bearded lady or anything. I get to travel the world."
Spence's journey began when he was overseas at age 9, visiting his grandfather in Ireland. He was horsing around with a shotgun, aiming it at a pile of cow dung.
"I had my head against the gun, like I saw cowboys doing it in movies, or like Ralphie in A Christmas Story," recalled Spence, "and I literally shot my eye out. The gun bucked hard against me, against my face, and while I didn't lose my eye at that point, it was traumatized and I was declared legally blind, despite having some vision in the right eye." (His left eye is healthy.)
"I was told I had to get my eye replaced, and that's when I began research eye cameras"
Without his depth perception and peripheral vision, he had to adapt to his newly-acquired clumsiness, like knocking over displays at grocery stores. He was fine with wearing an eye patch while producing one of his first documentary films, Let's All Hate Toronto, with filmmaker Albert Nerenberg, in 2007.
Around that time, his damaged eye began to swell and the cornea deteriorated. "I was told I had to get my eye replaced, and that's when I began research eye cameras," Spence said. "Why not get something different than a glass eye?"
He began networking with several camera makers and engineers, and quickly realized there was something to the idea. His tech partners were excited to develop this tiny camera to fit into his eye, a world first.
In 2008, Spence's first eye camera was built. Embedded with a camera equipped with a radio frequency micro-transmitter, the camera wasn't connected to the optic nerve. Spence couldn't see out of it, but he could use it to record others.
Engineers used a melted-wax mold of his eye socket to ensure the camera would fit securely under his eyelid. A magnetized reed switch—an electrical switch operated by an applied magnetic field—lets him turn the camera on and off.
While Spence doesn't insert the eye-camera into his face regularly, he employed it when Japanese video game maker Square Enix commissioned him to shoot a documentary about real-life cyborgs, in advance of their 2011 release Deus Ex: Human Evolution. Spence peppered the 12-minute doc with footage of his eye camera filming interviews he conducted with other people discussing their high-tech prostheses.
Spence's embedded technology gives life to the potential of The Singularity, the idea of man and machine merging to create a new technological era. Spence excitedly told me about Elon Musk's idea to develop neural interfacing, with the goal of turning cloud-based AI into an extension of the human brain.
We live in an era of lifecasting and GoPro cameras, which can track the public without their explicit permission or knowledge. Livestreaming on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is now the norm. And we could soon live in a world where more advanced prosthetics can integrate social media livestreaming, further muddying the waters of a person's right to record what they see and the public's right to privacy.
Spence reminded me he isn't interested in chronicling his every movement; he wants to save his eye camera for special projects, instead of recording what he ate for breakfast.
At FutureWorld in Toronto, when he finished his presentation, I snapped a few photos quickly of his red-LED eye glowing, but I was soon encircled by Eyeborg fans. No other presenter elicited such a strong reaction.
"Can I take a picture with you?" asked one attendee, trying to push past me to get close to Spence. I noticed Spence smiling. He's a celebrity here, and I could tell he was relishing this geeky fame, as he left us rethinking what it is to be human.
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