January 22, 2009
Tanya Vlach's quest: 'I want to be a superhero — I want a bionic eye'
Long story short: The one-eyed 35-year-old San Francisco artist [above] may yet achieve her goal.
Here's today's Washington Post Style section front page story by Joel Garreau about her drive toward her dream.
The Eye of A Dream Beheld
You used to need hubris, millions of dollars and the support of a great research university to imagine building a replacement for the human eye.
Now it's become dream and quest material for artists and tinkerers.
Tanya Vlach, 35, of San Francisco, wants a new computer eye to replace the natural one she lost in a car accident. So, being the product of her age, she put a request for help out on the Web. Sure enough, hundreds of young techies quickly responded. Might they fit a cellphone camera, some inquired, into Vlach's beautiful but merely decorative blue acrylic orb?
Here we find the intersection of two great American myths.
One involves filling a void by searching for the future inside ourselves — out on some new frontier.
The other connects to the inventor as hero — from Edison and his light bulb to the young creators of the computer revolution in their California garages — the lone rangers who changed the world.
This union occurs now because enhancing the human body has evolved to the point where it can be an art project, an amazing hack and a search for identity — a way to define your life.
This is where it gets interesting.
* * *
On Aug. 29, 2005, Tanya Vlach was driving alone at dusk in rolling Northern California countryside, headed for the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert.
The next entry in her journal comes six days later. Under the influence of morphine, she writes, "I was abducted by aliens who rolled over my dad's jeep, poked my eyes out and left me for dead."
Discovered in the wreckage by a rancher, she was airlifted to Redding, Calif. Her parents were told she might not make it. Then they were told she probably would, but with brain damage. Then, well, maybe not brain damage, but she'll be blind. It finally got down to "only" a ruptured left eye.
Soon thereafter she wrote, "almost hallucinating the movie in my left eye is wild it keeps going & going closed & open maybe i do have some brain damage the surgery kicked my ass . . . i want to feel again in my face i have faith i want to see again with a bionic eye."
She would return to that transformative idea. By Oct. 12 she was writing: "I want to be a superhero+, I want a bionic eye. I want it to zoom in on people w/o them knowing. I want it to take digital photos of those moments that I want to remember. I don't want to be disabled. I don't want to be monocular. I don't want bump into things, I don't want handicap placards. I don't want to feel like a loser, like I need to be coddled, or pity."
By the time she put these journals on the Web, she was well along in fitting her dead eye into a new sense of self. "The early chronicles of a swashbuckler," she titled them, and in the accompanying photo, Vlach gazes piercingly at the camera with her good right eye. Her left is covered with a patch.
She eventually was fitted with a magnificently crafted artificial eye [below].
It's not at all obvious, looking at her, which eye is unseeing. The prosthesis is not egg-shaped, however. It's an acrylic shell less than an inch across. In a long process of shaping and molding, it was carefully fitted on top of the remains of her unseeing eye, still in its socket. Not much thickness to work with there — less than a third of an inch — if you're thinking about fitting a seeing machine into it. Which Vlach never stopped thinking about.
She learned that computerized eyes already exist. Miraculously, they allow some blind people to sense light well enough to shoot a basketball through a hoop. One multimillion-dollar effort involves theUniversity of Southern California, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. Their digital cameras, however, are relatively large — they're mounted on eyeglasses — and Vlach wouldn't be a good candidate for the "artificial retina" patch that would connect directly to her optic nerve and her brain.
"Maybe 20 years down the line the technology would be good enough, but right now I'm doing something else," she says. "I started thinking about the increasingly miniature sizes of cameras, and why can't we fit something in my shell? It's kind of my way to re-create my eye. It's not exactly the same. It's not going into my brain. But it's adding function to something that didn't have function before. So it has a lot of interesting possibilities."
The possibilities involve having a camera in her eye that could capture whatever she was looking at, possibly recording it to a device in her pocket. "At first I didn't really know how it could work. I just did a lot of research on what the different components were, and then specifications. So then I just drafted up kind of a crude list of what I think could make it work."
Every eye should be so well-equipped: a "4 GB SD mini card," a "mini A/V out," a "Firewire/USB drive," an "optical 3X" zoom, a "remote trigger" — that sort of thing. In more ways than one, Vlach was filling her void. But to get there, she needed some co-dreamers.
She needed some first-class American technological heroes.
"The whole romance of the independent inventor in 19th-century America has to do with this notion of the individualist and Yankee ingenuity — it's the celebration of the common man," says Arthur Molella, director of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.
"It has to do with the celebration of Americans as inventive people -- reinventing themselves on this side of the Atlantic," Molella says. "Magazines were developed to help them. Scientific American started out as a help magazine."
As the Industrial Age matured, research and development increasingly became the hallmark of vast corporate, university and military outfits. But with the rise of the Information Age, "independent inventors have continued to thrive," Molella says. Steve Jobs, co-creator of the Apple computer, "fits this myth so beautifully," Molella says. Apple "revived this whole notion of the mavericks going against the grain of the big companies.
"There is this strongly held belief in the individual initiative in this country. It's related to a whole belief that technology can save us. We can be masters of our fate as individuals."
"I was so not prepared," Vlach says, for the "tons and tons of responses."
Early in 2008, at a film festival, she met one of the pioneers of the Internet age, a founding editor of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly. She mentioned that she had little idea, technically, how to achieve the eye she was dreaming about. Nor, after all her medical bills, did she have any money.
Kelly suggested she cast her bread upon the waters — expose her idea to the power of the network, the swarm, the Web that is indeed worldwide. In November he posted her "call for engineers" to his widely followed blog.
The result was a kind of bottom-up explosion. Something about Vlach and her idea touched a nerve. Dreamers found her home number, her cellphone number.
Typical was the blizzard of response on Boing Boing, the online 'zine/group blog that has been a watering hole for the technorati since soon after the Web began. The would-be Thomas Edisons — not to mention the Inspector Gadget fans — came out of the circuit boards.
"Thinking about taking the microphone out," wrote "TJ S," linking to some fancy sites for headsets and cellphone cameras, "and replacing the earpiece in this with one of these . . . . It would take some serious work (both soldering and re-writing firmware), but it should be doable for around $250 or more."
"I've been wearing a prosthetic eye for most of my life, and my friends and I have talked/joked about this sort of thing since i was 5," wrote "Robojim." "But we always include the ability to shoot lasers."
"I think an SD card could fit inside an eyeball sized enclosure . . . perhaps a system where the eye splits in two so you can get at the card when desired?" wrote "Guy Jin."
Somebody suggested Vlach settle for a lapel pin camera.
"Guntherhausfrau" was outraged.
"Why not a lapel pin camera? Really? What is the benifit of loosing an eye if you don't think about doing something cool? . . . Did you land at the wrong website? Why soap box derby when you have a car? why question things when everything is so gosh darn swell with the world?"
Practicalities were discussed. "Trevorwalton" wrote:
"The prosthesis itself is more of a 'shell' than a sphere. . . . No way are you gonna fit a working camera, power source, and memory in that space, with current technology. Sorry to burst all your bubbles. . . . Believe me, I'd be first in line for one, if it were to become available. However, much like the poster above, I'd rather have a frickin' laser beam."
"Thinking about this," wrote "Oskar," "there's no way you could fit the whole apparatus in the prosthetic eye (with camera, bluetooth, power source, and circuitry). . . . The only real solution I can imagine is to just have the camera in there, and then have a tiny discreet cable coming out of the side of the eye that feeds into a larger box on her belt or somewhere (the cable could go behind her ear, down the neck and down her back under her shirt) . . . I suppose the big issue with this is that it's going to look extremely freaky. People aren't used to seeing other people with a cable coming out of their eyeball."
"If she's willing to get some brow or upper cheek piercings and subdermal wiring, though," wrote "Anonymous," "there's the interface from the camera to power and storage kept somewhere else — hat, glasses, Phantom of the Opera mask, what have you."
Of course, there were outright naysayers.
"Yes, let's ask a horde of untrained garage tinkerers with Dremel tools to create something that highly-funded medical researchers have been working on for decades without success!" wrote "Kyle Armbruster."
But many more remembered the myth of the American garage inventor, and the dream.
"Takuan" wrote: "You know Kyle, sometimes that actually works."
Vlach is an artist who works in a variety of media — video, stage, dance. "I woke in the hospital drowsy from the morphine, wiggled my toes, and then did a drugged-out shimmy," she recalls. "Literally my first conscious thought was: Oh good, I can dance."
Recently she's been working on an essay that purports to be about achieving your dreams. But it's really about the inextricable nature of filling your voids.
" 'How has your accident changed you?' Pepe, one of the artists at the theater asks me, while he's carving away at his humungous alien looking sculpture, the question I hate the most, also a question I desperately want to be asked. The crux of it is that it puts into focus that I have no answer."
She tells of running into a writing teacher at a theater reception. "He asked me how I was and after some dancing around, being tipsy, I blurted out that I wear death on my face. I was feeling very proud and strong it must have been the cuba libres, to say that. I mean you don't go around telling people that kinda stuff; I don't want to freak people out. His reaction wasn't what I had expected. He said that hopefully one day I wouldn't feel like that anymore.
"I'm not done figuring this out. I've tried to be strong and callous."
Her recovery involved a good deal of facial reconstruction. She has titanium between her cheekbones. Parts of her face are still numb — her nerves are still repairing themselves. But that's not the only kind of reconstructing.
Vlach's essay is punctuated by 21 items she's adding to her life list. No. 4 is "fall in love." No. 6 is "help the disabled." Others include "own and design home," "have baby," "dance salsa in Cuba," "be happy" and "meet the rancher who saved my life."
The final one, however, is so important that she moved it to the top of the first page.
The title of the essay is "#21. grow a new eye."
As technological white knights go, Frank Oliver, 37, has earned his spurs, his lance and his helmet plume. In grammar school he was teaching himself advanced math, and by the age of 12 was building robots and rockets and programming computers. At Oregon State he topped off his work in mechanical and electrical engineering by switching to physics and math in his senior year. His four-person Tucson start-up company, Artisan Robotics, focuses on cutting-edge materials science and power systems for aerospace and military robots.
Vlach thinks that of all the techies who contacted her, Oliver may be the right guy. Their first face-to-face business meeting is scheduled for later this week. Of growing Vlach her eye, Oliver says, "I suspect it may take two or three years, maybe a little more. Where will the money come from? I have no idea yet."
The idea is not nuts, says James Weiland, a retinal prosthesis researcher at the University of Southern California's Artificial Retina Project. "The electronics would not be difficult. Imaging chips are very small these days. Even getting a small battery to run it. The challenges might be protecting the devices from the body fluids in contact with them. It's not insurmountable. But so many components have to come together that it would be — I would say technically feasible, but a challenge."
Oliver is stoked by these challenges. Getting power into the device. Getting the signal out. Creating data on what you can put into someone's eye socket. Making it all work so close to the brain. Seeing if a team can be created from the legions of specialists who responded to Vlach's call.
But he knows that's not the whole deal.
"What made Tanya [below]
pick me?" he muses. "I do think one of the things is that in my proposal, I said, whoever she picks needs to think of her first. There is a tendency among tech-minded people to focus on technology and forget about exactly what they're doing and why.
"Tanya is going through a strong emotional process. It's her eye. Everything's happening to her. She has a tendency to want to do her own thing. She's trying to fill a void within herself."
Oliver's a pilgrim, but a pragmatist.
He understands he's working on two frontiers.
'US Airways to give each flier on ditched jet $5,000'
I have no problem with the payments.
I just hope the airline offers Captain Sullenberger more than a bag of peanuts for his part.
vloud — 'Makes any song very, very, very loud'
"Upload quiet MP3s and get louder ones back."
Free, the way we like it.
Banana Cell Phone Cover
to fit both
flip and candy bar style phones.
Portable Bike Lane
Wrote Altitude's Alex Tee and Evan Gant about their LightLane concept, "Our system projects a crisply defined virtual bike lane onto pavement using a laser, providing the driver with a familiar boundary to avoid. With a wider margin of safety, bikers will regain their confidence to ride at night, making the bike a more viable commuting alternative."
What is it?
Answer here this time tomorrow.
'Danger, Will Robinson' — 'Lost in Space' Robot Bob May is Dead
"The man who wore the Robot's suit in the hit 1960's television show "Lost in Space" died on Sunday," begins today's Associated Press obituary, which follows.
Above, Bob May with Robot B9.
Bob May, 69, Robot in 'Lost in Space'
Bob May, who wore the Robot’s suit in the hit 1960s television show “Lost in Space,” died on Sunday in Lancaster, Calif. He was 69.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his daughter, Deborah May.
A veteran actor and stuntman who had appeared in movies and television shows and on the vaudeville stage, Mr. May was chosen by Irwin Allen, creator of “Lost in Space,” to play the Robinson family’s loyal metal sidekick in the series, a space-age retelling of “The Swiss Family Robinson,” which made its debut in 1965.
“He always said he got the job because he fit in the robot suit,” said the actress June Lockhart, who played the marooned family’s matriarch, Maureen Robinson.
Although Mr. May did not provide the Robot’s distinctive voice (supplied by the announcer Dick Tufeld), he developed a following of fans who sought him out at memorabilia shows.
As the Robot, Mr. May dutifully warned the Robinson family of approaching disaster. His line to one of the children, “Danger, Will Robinson,” became a national catchphrase.
The grandson of the famed vaudeville comedian Chic Johnson, Mr. May began appearing at the age of 2 in the “Hellzapoppin” comedy revue with Mr. Johnson and his partner, Ole Olsen.
Mr. May’s survivors include his wife Judith; his daughter; his son, Martin; and four grandchildren. Mr. May and his wife lost their house in November when a wildfire destroyed their upscale mobile home park in the San Fernando Valley.
Because the Robot’s suit was hard to get into and out of, Ms. Lockhart said, Mr. May stayed in it for hours at a time. He learned the lines of every actor in the show so he would know when to respond to their cues.
Who tall are you? — 'Because measuring your height with numbers is so last decade'
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