Tony Stark has one. So does Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and just about every superhero on the market. Wolverine even has a new movie all about his. It’s the ‘origin story;’ the twist of fate that makes a superhero myth so compelling. If all it takes is a good origin story and the resulting super-human power to make a superhero, Toronto-based filmmaker Rob Spence just might be one.
Spence is in the process of becoming the Eyeborg. The quest began when he lost his right eye after a freak injury that occurred when he was shooting at a pile of cow dung at age 13 (‘Which I hit, by the way,’ says Spence). The shotgun backfired, hitting him in the eye in the process. After enduring the pain in his right eye for 10 years, Spence had it removed.
More recently, Spence reconciled the two major elements of his life – his career as a filmmaker and his missing eye – by assembling a team of engineers to help him build a camera in a prosthetic eye. But while adding robotic parts is a move more in line with villains than heroes, Spence says he’s using his newfound powers for good, not evil, in the form of The Eyeborg Project.
‘Initially, what I decided to do was fight for justice and see if I can become a human surveillance camera to provide a bit of balance against privacy encroachments that are happening now,’ he explains. Instead, he plans to have the doc focus on his transformation into the Eyeborg, with surveillance issues as its subtext. Though his project is attracting a lot of media attention from the likes of Wired, FOX News, Space TV and Jimmy Kimmel, as well as the 2009 Digital News Affairs Conference in Brussels at which Spence was invited to speak, some people are decidedly turned off by the idea of an internalized surveillance camera. ‘Like other superheroes, people are more suspicious of me, the creep with the camera in his eye.’ It’s the classic superhero plot; the hero becomes the villain as he is misunderstood by the public. Some broadcasters have also hesitated to get involved in the project, feeling that it might be too gimmicky, but Spence thinks the public and media attention it’s received so far should prove that The Eyeborg Project is a doc people want to see. Ashton Kutcher even Tweeted about it, after all.
Much like Iron Man, which is both a commentary on the global arms race and Tony Stark’s personal story, The Eyeborg Project also plays a dual role: it is a documentary commenting on surveillance in today’s society as well as the story of a man living with a bionic eye. And it’s much more than a film; while the project will culminate in a documentary following Spence’s journey to insert a camera into his skull, it will also result in a feat of engineering with the creation of a real bionic eye.
Designed for the most part by former avionics systems engineer Kosta Grammatis in Spence’s living room, the eye contains a lithium polymer battery, a tiny wireless RF transmitter and a circuit board with a 1.5 millimeter square CMOS camera enclosed within two clear pieces of eye-shaped plastic. The transmitter sends the video captured through the eye to a receiver where it can be viewed or recorded. The camera eye itself pops in just like a prosthetic, and with its circular circuit board, is in itself somewhat eye-like, resembling something like the pupil of a cyborg. Spence says the project is a bit ‘MacGyvered’ as the low-budget doc team can’t afford to send the camera eye to a manufacturer to make it snap shut, so they’re currently using wax to hold all the parts inside.
According to Grammatis, the hardest part for him was finding all the little bits it took to make the contraption. ‘We’re talking about state of the art, ‘world’s smallest’ stuff,’ says Grammatis. ‘It’s been a journey just trying to wrangle the people who manufacture these things and getting [them] excited about the project.’ Working on such a huge technical undertaking with almost no budget, the equipment used to make the eye has been mostly donated, as has the time of the team behind the project.
Aside from Grammatis, who flew to Toronto from San Francisco after reading about Spence’s plans in an online Wired article, the team consists of Steve Mann, who is consulting on the surveillance component of the project and Phil Bowen, an ocularist (or someone who makes ocular prosthetics) who is helping with the construction of the prosthetic. Mann is an obvious choice for a consultant since he is best known for creating wearable computers, specifically glasses that allow him to be online at all times. He co-wrote the book Cyborg: Digital Destiny and he was the subject of Cyberman, a documentary by filmmaker Peter Lynch.
From the filmmaking perspective, Spence, who directed 2007′s Let’s All Hate Toronto, has been trying to sell this latest project for three years, and he’s hoping that someone will bite soon. ‘I feel like I have shined up my fanny as shiny as it can get and I’m waggling it, and goddammit, I hope somebody buys it because it’s cost me a lot of money and a lot of time,’ he says. He summarizes with a sentiment that many filmmakers can relate to. ‘If nobody buys it I’ll make it anyway; that’s the sad truth.’