Rob Spence has a camera in place of his right eye. Photo: Justin McManus
WHEN Canadian filmmaker Rob Spence decided to have his badly damaged eye removed from its socket, he chose to replace it not with a prosthetic, but with a wireless camera. The decision, he says, was easy.
»Every person I know who’s lost an eye immediately thinks, ‘I should think about getting a camera,’ » he says. Although so far, Spence is the only person who has actually acted on the notion.
In a world first, Spence and a team of engineers and eye specialists developed an eye-camera, a miniature camera and wireless transmitter fitted into his eye.
Spence badly damaged his eye after a childhood accident with a gun.
Spence damaged his eye as a child after mishandling a gun, and had been legally blind in his right eye for years. After several operations, doctors eventually advised him to remove it.
»As soon as I knew the eye was coming out, I thought about the camera and I started making the calls, » Spence, now 36, says.
His first calls were to Australia, known for its research into bionics, but eventually he found young engineers keen to collaborate on a volunteer basis; the first prototype took just three months.
Spence shows his prosthetic eye during an interview in 2009.
It has since been refined – and continues to be – but it is essentially a 1.5 millimetre-square low-resolution video camera, a round circuit board, a video transmitter and a three-volt rechargeable battery, all contained in the clear acrylic used to make prosthetic eyes. As well as fulfilling millions of kids’ Six Million Dollar Man fantasies, the eye-camera was recognised last year in Time magazine’s 50 best inventions.
Spence, also known as Eyeborg, is in Melbourne this week as a special guest of the Other Film Festival, and will present the world premiere demonstration of the camera in operation on Thursday night.
The footage quality, he says, is similar to that of a phone camera.
The camera in Rob Spence’s eye socket is wireless.
»The aesthetic, oddly, is very similar to the point of view of the Terminator from the first Terminator film, including a slight wavering of video, which is actually now part of film language to talk about surveillance and cyborgy stuff, » Spence says. »In [film-editing software] Final Cut Pro, there’s a filter called ‘bad video’ which, if you’re doing a futuristic film, you use to give you that effect.
»Happily for me, I have this built-in aesthetic for the pop-culture references that I enjoy referencing and the ideas I enjoy talking about. »
The obvious use for one’s own in-built camera is documenting one’s own life – or »lifecasting » as it’s known – but Spence is not interested in that.
»I don’t want to be going to the bathroom or on a date with a girl and shooting. Plus, I’m a big fan of editing, » he says. »What I’m going to do is what anybody would do with a new camera – just shoot all kinds of stuff. »
But he hasn’t discounted using his eye as a »hidden » camera. »I could do undercover stuff. I think people have done good work with undercover cameras, although I know there are ethical issues, » he says.
»And I know it freaks a lot of people out. The two words that always come up when I meet people are ‘fascinating’ and ‘creepy’.
»It scares people even though they’ve probably just walked down a street and been filmed five or six times on security cameras. »
For now, Spence is working on his first documentary using footage from the eye, exploring »the literal point of view » and the convergence of all these issues – »cyborgs, video surveillance, privacy ».
He has yet to be recruited by the military – or so he says.
»Although I have been approached by [news wire service] AP – they wanted me to go into war zones! I don’t think so, » he says.
»And I’ve also been approached by Bollywood to play an evil womanising spy that goes to India and is destroyed by a handsome young Indian hero. That sounds like more fun. »
See the world premiere of Rob Spence’s Eyeborg footage at the Other Film Festival, Thursday, 6pm, at the Melbourne Museum.