TedXToronto

The Eyeborg speaks today at TEDxToronto

TEDxToronto is today and one of the speakers I'm most looking forward to is the Eyeborg - Rob Spence. The last time we talked to Spence, he was Mr. Toronto, the on-screen director for Let's All Hate Toronto. While he's working on the sequel , Why do the Leafs suck so much?, Rob's also been gaining international attention for his documentary as Eyeborg, which was commissioned by Square Enix to celebrate the launch of their game, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a prequel to their critically-acclaimed game Deus Ex.

When Rob was 9 years old, he lost his eye to a shotgun at his grandfather's farm. "Anyone who loses their eye jokes about getting an eye camera," says Rob, "I was just crazy enough to follow through." As a documentary maker, the idea to have a camera in his eye was particularly attractive - "you remove a lot of the technology from the mix and get direct eye contact, a glimpse to the window of someone's soul through a robot eye."

Rob's prosthetic eye is a small camera that transmits to a receiver. It took him and his Eyeborg project team - including engineer Kosta Grammatis who lived out of Rob's home for 4 months to do this project - two years from the prototype they made with parts ordered online to the prosthetic eye that Rob can just pop in and out of his socket as needed.

By luck, the footage Rob gets from the RF signals is much like the Princess Leia hologram from Star Wars, with the distortion and scan lines. The resemblance of his eyes to science fiction tropes isn't lost on Rob. "There's a lot of humour in the world. To me, losing this eye is very cool, sometimes in a very immature way." Rob's prosthetic eye also lights up in red, the way Schwarzenegger's does in Terminator.

When Square Enix was getting ready to launch Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a first-person shooter RPG whose characters can achieve superhuman feats through nanotechnology, they approached Rob to help with the promotion. Instead of doing appearances, Rob came up with the idea for a documentary on the current landscape of cybernetics and prosthetics.

The documentary's narrative is framed by the mechanical augmentation of the protagonist, Adam Jensen. Rob traveled the world to interview 7 subjects on their prosthetic eyes, arms and legs and the technology behind them. The documentary took only a month and half to make from the initial green light to the final YouTube video.

Current bionic technology is controlled by external and kinetic sensors, but experimentation has already begun for neural-based sensors, where the prosthetics would be controlled by the brain. The challenge is that since each brain is unique, one person may process one thing at a different location that somebody. The general consensus is that once this brain-to-machine interface hurdle is crossed, the technology will be able to follow.

While Rob is continually refining his prosthetic eye - "there is no perfect eye - I can always find ways to improve it" he will be making an appearance at TEDxToronto today at 12:50. You can watch the live stream here or attend one of the many viewing parties around the city.

Writing by Cynthia Yao


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