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"When you completely lose an eye it is a difficult thing to let go of," he says. "The eye has an emotional attachment. It is a window to your soul."
Spence wore an eye patch for a while, which he says looked cool. But once he started thinking about having a camera in his eye, Spence got in touch with Steve Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto. Mann is one of the experts in the world of wearable computing and cyborgs -- organisms that blend natural and artificial systems.
"There are a lot of challenges in this," says Mann, "from actually building a camera system that works, to sending and receiving images, to getting the correct shape of the camera."
Even in the age of miniaturization, getting a wireless video camera into a prosthetic eye isn't easy. The shape of the prosthetic is the biggest limitation: In Spence's case, it's 9-mm thick, 30-mm long and 28-mm high.
While that might seem like plenty of room in an age when digital cameras are squeezed into unimaginably slim and compact phones, it actually isn't. The average area available inside a prosthetic eye for an imaging sensor is only about 8 square mm, explains Phil Bowen, an ocularist who is working with Spence. Also, a digital camera has many more components than the visible lens and the sensor behind it, including the power supply and image-processing circuitry. Getting a completely self-contained camera module to fit into the tiny hollow of a prosthetic eye is a significant engineering challenge.
That's where Professors Huang and Rogers' research could come in handy. Three months ago, the duo published a paper that showed how a new sensor built out of a flexible mesh of wire-connected pixels could replace the traditional flat imaging chip as the light sensor for a camera. The mesh is made from many of the same materials as a standard digital-camera sensor, but it has the ability to conform to convoluted, irregular surfaces -- like the back of a synthetic eyeball.
"Our cameras might more naturally integrate with a prosthetic eye, due to their hemispherical shapes," says Rogers. "One might also argue that they can provide a more human-like perception of the world."
Then there's the question of how the prosthetic eyeball (the outer shell for the camera) will be made. The eyeball chassis has to close shut and be watertight.
Traditional prosthetic eyes are single pieces made with polymethyl-methacrylate (PMMA), a flexible polymer that is also used in dentures. To fit a camera in, Bowen redesigned the prosthetic eye into two pieces that could snap shut.
But with a camera inside there's something new to worry about. The modified prosthetic eye will be heavier than traditional ones and that could affect the eye socket, says Bowen. "The weight might stretch out the lower lid," he says, potentially disfiguring the face.