Since the fifth century, skilled practitioners have been attempting to create artificial eyes that were such an exact replica of a person’s natural eye that they appeared identical. Today this is the field of ocularists, trained medical professionals who fit, shape, and create ocular prostheses, including re-creating the complex details of a human iris–a process normally done by painting each eye by hand. John Stolpe is a third-generation ocularist who believes that it is well past time that his industry moves into the future. His weapon? A high-resolution 3-D printer.
“Digital printing is no longer a dot matrix crude print, it can reproduce fine art,” Stolpe says, explaining the philosophy behind the “leap” he took to focus his Los Angeles-based practice, Advanced Artificial Eyes, on making digital irises. “We can numerically and digitally home in on perfection, as opposed to being able to start from scratch each time with hand painting.” And it is quite a leap, nearly as large as the one his grandfather made during World War II. Until that time, artificial eyes were made from glass, and specifically German glass. During the war, the U.S. needed another, more readily available, material. Stolpe’s grandfather was on the team charged with figuring out what could work, eventually discovering that acrylic was an alternative. It is still used today, though little else had changed in the field until digital printing.
When a patient needs to have an artificial eye made, the first step is a consultation with an ocularist who will take measurements and an impression of the eye socket to create a custom-fit acrylic prosthetic. Ocularists using digital technology must then find an exact color match of the many parts of the iris to input into the computer for printing. The difficulty lies in the fact that while everyone uses shorthand to describe their eye as just one color, it is in fact many shades. Stolpe, the first ocularist to pass his boards using only digital technology, has an in-house digital color library that is vast and growing. It is in the thousands and “whenever I see an eye that doesn’t quite fall into my system, it’s exciting, a chance to grow my library.” Far from hoarding it, he is selling the library to other ocularists so they can use the technology. “I debuted 84 digital irises [for sale] in 2012, another 135 brown and hazel this year, and a tool that has 200 blue hues,” he says.
While Stolpe believes he works in the “ultimate niche industry” dominated by an older generation that is hesitant to accept that a machine can do better than their hand, he insists it is essential to shift the field from painting to printing. Since the technology and color libraries are exportable and the cost is not higher than hand-painting, people needing artificial eyes enjoy increased access to top-quality ones in nations that may not have as many ocularists. Digitally printed irises are currently being used in the U.S., throughout South America, and in India, South Africa, and Germany.
Artificial eyes made from digital technology have become so close to looking like real eyes that they have forced a change in security measures. Digital iris scanners are no longer a foolproof way to identify someone, as irises can be effectively reproduced. Aside from forcing upgrades in security, Stolpe believes there is a much greater good. “In the past, people in need of artificial eyes could become hermits, not participating or even going outside because they were insecure. Now, we can make changes in their lives by developing an amazing piece of plastic for them.”