'Eyeborg' and Other Transhumans Meet in Austin to Talk About BodyHacking

The annual convention brings together scholars, activists, artists and other experts driving the cyborg movement.

You know that red-eye problem you get with cameras? Yeah, Rob "Eyeborg" Spence has a whole other take on that issue.

Spence, a 44-year-old Canadian filmmaker, has half-jokingly assumed the nickname "Eyeborg" since replacing his prosthetic eyeball with a miniaturized digital camera about seven years ago. The latest version of Spence's extremely onboard camera - complete with spooky red LED light - wirelessly connects to a mobile computer and can record videos or snap photos of anything he's looking at, any time, any place.

Actually, Spence has two functional eyeball cameras now, one that looks like a traditional prosthetic eye and another with that menacing "Terminator" glare. His cybernetic upgrade has led to a number of projects in recent years. Spence has delivered TED Talks, collaborated with video game companies, and recently appeared on Showtime's true-life series "Dark Net."

As man-machine interfaces go, it's an intriguing take on the cyborg concept and one that's made Spence something of a celebrity in bodyhacking circles. In fact, he will be a featured speaker this weekend at the second annual BodyHacking Con at the Austin Convention Center in Texas.

For the uninitiated, the term bodyhacking (or biohacking) refers to an emerging kind of cross-pollinated subculture in which individuals strive to improve their bodies and minds by any technological means necessary. Bodyhacking encompasses everything from limb prosthetics to extreme body modification, smart drugs to cybernetic implants, cosmetic surgery to wearables, transhumanism to tattoos.

Spence has been making the rounds at bodyhacking events for several years now. At this year's con, he'll be delivering a presentation on the Eyeborg Project with Martin Ling, one of several engineers who helped develop Spence's eye cameras.

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"I speak Sunday morning, and besides that I plan to hang out and chat with interesting people," Spence told Seeker.

That should be easy enough. Spence is just one of several special guests at this year's BodyHacking Con, known informally as BDYHAX (pronounced "body hacks"). The schedule includes presentations by science fiction author Cory Doctorow plus more than two dozen cybernetics scholars, activists, grinders and artists. You can check out the full schedule at the conference website.

Event manager Trevor Goodman said this year's gathering-of-the-tribes seems to be developing a focus all on its own. Many of the speakers and presenters are addressing impending government regulations and other related issues around cybernetic ethics, certifications and standards.

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Goodman cited the case of Neil Haribisson, a colorblind bodyhacking activist with a surgically implanted skull antenna that allows him to convert color into sound. How did he get such an implant? Well, that leads to some of the legal gray areas that bodyhackers necessarily inhabit. Like a lot of emerging technologies, DIY bodyhacking has simply outpaced government regulation, particularly in the field of medicine.

"Probably the biggest issue is how we view medicine and regulation around medicine in most countries," Goodman said. "Even Neil Harbisson can't release the name of his surgeon who implanted his antenna. The U.S. government hardly even understands what the internet is, and we've been using it broadly for two decades."

The event isn't all tech and policy, of course. Friday features a bodyhacking fashion show with many fast-forward ideas on display. For instance, apparel designer Jingwen Zhu will present "My Heart on My Dress," a bespoke smart garment with dynamic colors and patterns generated by real-time text analysis of her digital diary.

There's also a cyberpunk-themed dance party on Saturday night and a live-action puzzle game running through the weekend. The volunteer organization Enabling the Future is planning a Hand-a-Thon to assemble 100 3D-printed prosthetic hands for underprivileged kids. Organizers have also set up an expo/lounge space called the Hub for people to wander around and interface, figuratively or otherwise.

"There aren't a lot of people doing direct sales at the event this year, unfortunately, but there are plenty of demos and samples to partake in," Goodman said.

As for the Eyeborg, you might expect BodyHacking Con to be his kind of scene, but Spence actually has mixed feelings on the future of cybernetics and radical man-machine interface.

"Unlike a lot of bodyhackers, I didn't choose to change my body," Spence said."I just conveniently have an empty eye socket, and people with prosthetic eyes can easily take them in and out like earrings.

"I find myself just as horrified and intrigued as everyone else about the prospect of a future where you replace parts of your body with an augmentation."

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