Techies Respond to Artist's Quest for a Bionic Eye

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 22, 2009

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.

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