When Kathleen McCarthy, the Museum of Science and Industry’s director of collections, read about the Electronic Eye Camera in the journal Nature, she immediately knew she wanted it. “The applications of this device are enormous—it could add vision to all sorts of things,” McCarthy exclaims, including “humans, even if that’s a long way off.”
The Electronic Eye Camera, created in 2008 under the direction of University of Illinois professor John Rogers, doesn’t look like much. It now sits in a case in the Museum of Science and Industry’s “Science Storms,” a 2010 exhibit that explores physics phenomena such as sunlight and optics. On a black box, a tiny glass dome tops an unassuming circuit board.
But it is unlike any regular digital camera. Conventional snap-and-shoot cameras create a distorted photo because a curved lens projects an image onto a flat surface. Rogers’s camera solves that problem by emulating the spherical eye.
“The eye is simple, it’s elegant, but it’s hard to engineer,” McCarthy says. “We’ve always thought of optics as a tool we use to see something, and this really focuses back on one of the most amazing optical devices that exists: our eye.”
Here’s how it works: The Electric Eye Camera’s light detectors are wrapped into a curved shape. Together, the lens and the mesh of light detectors, two hemispherical shapes, record a flat image. The breakthrough in materials is substantial because, unlike in Rogers’s camera, conventional semiconductors are flat wafers with the limited flexibility of glass. It’s a problem scientists have long been trying to solve.
Perhaps more significantly, the flexible shape shows that technology can closely emulate biology, even human tissue.
“When people read that the display says ‘Electronic Eye,’ I think it sparks the imagination,” McCarthy says. A recent donation from a museum visitor is perched beside it: a set of bulky 1950s contact lenses. The pairing creates an interesting juxtaposition. When placed side by side, the electronic eye’s lens and the contacts look palpably, even squeamishly, eye-like.
For McCarthy, the eye makes clear that old ideas about science are still relevant. When “Science Storms” opened, the display case holding the electronic eye also housed a first edition of Isaac Newton’s groundbreaking 1704 book, Opticks, on short-term loan from University of Chicago due to the book’s fragile nature. Currently, the case contrasts thenew digital technology with alate-1800s telescope.
“Scientific research is a continuum,” McCarthy notes. “The work being done today is built on what has been done in the past, and the kids—the school groups that come to the museum—the work that they’ll do when they’re older is built on the work being done today.”
Before the camera made its way to the museum, it sat in the University of Illinois’s Materials Research Laboratory, a facility filled with research gadgets. There, Rogers supervised the group of doctorate students who created the electronic eye. Other research programs in the lab use similar biology-inspired, flexible technology on devices integrated in the brain and the heart.
While Rogers would like to see the technology behind his electronic eye applied to an actual retina implant, the effort has been problematic. “The kind of animal experiments you do with a vision-based device are trickier than those that you integrate with the brain and the heart,” Rogers says. “It’s hardto determine what an animal is actually seeing.”
In the meantime, he works with a startup company to integrate his invention into small, lightweight, low-cost cameras for market-driven niche uses. He loaned a first version of the Electronic Eye Camera to the museum. “We’re happy to donate devices to share it with the broader public,” Rogers says. “To the extent that we can give back and get people excited about science and engineering, we’re excited to do that.”
Who knows, maybe one day, it won’t be just the lens looking out at us; we might be snapping pictures of the exhibit through a highly accurate lens or, even, looking at it with an implanted retina of our own.