Engineering professor’s diagram of robotic eye on display at MoMA
Jan Van der Spiegel's 'foveated CCD chip' is an image sensor modeled on the human eye, part of MoMA's permanent collection
January 24, 2013, 12:17 am·
When Jan Van der Spiegel, a Penn professor of electrical and systems engineering, opened his morning New York Times on Jan. 2, he found a pleasant surprise.
Tucked within a rave review of a recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art was a photo of particular interest to Van der Spiegel — a gallery patron gazing at a diagram of the professor’s “foveated CCD chip.”
The diagram, part of MoMA’s permanent collection, is currently being displayed in an Artist’s Choice exhibition curated by conceptual and performance artist Trisha Donelly. The exhibit runs through April 8.
While Van der Spiegel didn’t know that his work was being exhibited again, he believes that engineering a microchip is not so different from creating a work of art.
“It is like being an architect but at a very micro scale,” he said. “The colors, the design, the features that we use, I think, can be very artistic.”
He added that aesthetics are “not a first priority but in many cases when something looks good it also means that it’s going to perform well.”
According to Assistant Professor of Fine Arts Orkan Telhan, it is no surprise to see engineering diagrams in a MoMA gallery. As one of the foremost design museums in the country, MoMA often displays the work of architects, interior designers and engineers.
“MoMA has been one of the most prominent places where artistic, conceptual, and technical pieces have been displayed and archived,” Telhan said. “Design is an expanded field.”
Van der Spiegel’s designs of microelectric circuits are inspired by biology and nature. His foveated CCD chip, for example, is an image sensor modeled on the human eye.
The most sensitive part of the human eye, the fovea, is located at its center. Photodetectors on the edges of the human eye increase in size and decrease in sensitivity. For this reason, Van der Spiegel explained, objects directly in front of one’s eyes will appear less blurry then those in one’s peripheral vision.
“This is how human visual systems can deal with so much information,” he added.
If the human eye could process visual information as precisely as all across the eye as at its center, the brain would have to weigh “a hundred kilograms,” he said.
The image sensor that Van der Spiegel and his colleagues designed also had a high-resolution region known as “the fovea” at its center. Like those in the human eye, the photodetectors at the edges of the chip were larger and less sensitive than those in the fovea.
In the same way this design decreases the amount of information sent from the eye to brain, Van der Spiegel hoped that by decreasing the resolution of the edges of the image, he and his team could decrease the amount of data inputted into a robot.
“The idea was to give these eyes to a robot, so that he could hopefully navigate easily,” he said.
The chip, however, was only briefly used in Penn’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception Lab. Van der Spiegel said the model was expensive to make and required cumbersome supporting electronics.
Its innovative circular design also made the circuit difficult to implement, he added, as it did not represent data in traditional square pixels. Therefore, it required special algorithms to process the data.
While the chip was not as functional as Van der Spiegel might have hoped, it soon found renown in the world of design.
After a diagram of the chip was featured in a MoMA exhibition of engineering diagrams, a curator asked the University to donate it to the museum.
“It was kind of a lark at the time … and to have [the diagram] in a place like MoMA was certainly pleasant at that,” said Gregory Kreider, a 1993 Ph.D recipient in engineering, who worked with Van der Spiegel on the project.
“I think that this chip got more visibility through the art world … than from its original intention,” Van der Spiegel said. “I became an artist overnight.”