- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009


A one-eyed documentary filmmaker is preparing to work with a video camera concealed inside a prosthetic eye, hoping to record people secretly for a project commenting on the global spread of surveillance cameras.

Canadian Rob Spence’s eye was damaged in a childhood shooting accident, and it was removed three years ago. Now he is in the final stages of developing a camera to turn the handicap into an advantage.

A fan of the 1970s television series “The Six Million Dollar Man,” Mr. Spence says he had an epiphany when looking at his cell-phone camera and realizing something that small could fit into his empty eye socket.

With the camera tucked inside a prosthetic eye, he hopes to be able to record the same things he sees with his working eye as his muscles move the camera eye just like his real one.

Mr. Spence says he plans to become a “human surveillance machine” to explore privacy issues and whether people are “sleepwalking into an Orwellian society.”

He says his subjects won’t know he’s filming until afterward but he will have to receive permission from them before including them in his film.

His special equipment will consist of a camera originally designed for colonoscopies, a battery and a wireless transmitter. It’s a challenge to get everything to fit inside the prosthetic eye, but Mr. Spence has had help from top engineers, including Steve Mann, co-founder of the wearable-computers research group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

The camera was provided by OmniVision Inc., a Santa Clara, Calif., company that specializes in the miniature cameras found in cell phones, laptops and endoscopes.

Zafer Zamboglu, staff technical product manager at OmniVision, says he thinks success with the eye camera will accelerate research into using the technology to restore vision to blind people.

“We believe there’s a good future in the prosthetic eye,” he says.

The team expects to get the camera to work in the next month. Mr. Spence, who jokingly calls himself “Eyeborg,” told reporters at a media conference in Brussels that the camera hidden in a prosthetic eye - the same pale hazel color as his real one - also would let him capture more natural conversations than he would with a bulky regular camera.

“As a documentary maker, you’re trying to make a connection with a person,” he says, “and the best way to make a connection is through eye contact.”

Mr. Spence also acknowledges privacy concerns. “The closer I get to putting this camera eye in, the more freaked out people are about me,” he says, adding that people aren’t sure they want to hang around someone who might be filming them at any time.

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