The Victorians Beat Us All to VR


I’ve been fascinated by stereoscope cards since I stumbled upon a cache of cards and viewers at the Yaddo artist colony in 2001. In recent years I’ve been collecting these cards, which represent the some of the first efforts at photographic 3D. The technology is quite simple. A pair of photographs of the same scene taken slightly apart recreate stereopsis when viewed through a stereoscope viewer.

Gazing at these tableaux does create a slight feeling of that VR buzz word presence. In the brilliantly executed scene pictured above, the staff of Ontario’s Windsor Hotel Great Dining Hall circa 1894 stand ready to serve you. You can’t really see it in the jpeg, but behind them, in the back of the room, are two huge mirrors, which create even more depth. I count at least  dozen distinct planes in this image! It’s easy, when looking at these sorts of scene, to fall into the fourth dimension–time. I get tugged backward to the turn of the twentieth century and feel, ever-so-slightly, that I am there.

As I’ve spent more time with stereoscope cards, I’ve begun to appreciate the craft of their anonymous photographers. You can tell the ones who seized upon the possibilities of communicating depth.

Ye Olde Occulus Rift

The stereoscope evolved into a toy that most of us have some familiarity with, the View Master. I have a View Master with a number of slides, including one of pictures taken around Washington State in 1954. My favorite shot from this series is a view of downtown Seattle taken from that little park on Admiral as you approach the crest of the hill in West Seattle. It’s quite incredible to see our city when the tallest building on the skyline was the Smith Tower. There’s also an image of Spirit Lake and Mount Saint Helens that almost makes me tear up every time I look at it. Not because St. Helens is gone, but because of how much snow there is on that mountain. It almost hurts to look at.

Speaking of snow, last week I met a Vrtist, Dr. Evie Powell, who created the snowball fight game I tried out. She also made this extremely cool VR marimba experience at a hackathon. I dig the dancing trees!

I emailed Evie to ask if it would be possible to create a stereoscope emulator that converts old stereoscope images into VR. She said she thinks it would be, with a number of caveats. From what I understood from her response, you might not be able to walk around within the stereoscope scenes, but you should be able to create a little “theater” in VR where you could view these scenes.

Incidentally, Dr. Brian May, whose career has included playing guitar in Queen, astrophysics, and championing animal rights, happens to be an expert on vintage stereoscopic technology. He’s written a couple books on the subject, including Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell and A Village Lost and Found: An Annotated Tour of the 1850s Series of Stereo Photographs “Scenes in Our Village” by T.R. Williams.

Wheels are turning. I’m imagining Brian May’s Virtual Reality Stereoscope Theatre. I’m going to think on this some more. In the meantime, I will leave you with the following pertinent questions.

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?