Nineteenth-Century Virtual Reality

Posted on
May 17, 2021

This post is written by Phillip Emanuel, Graduate Student Apprentice.

 

On one level a virtual reality headset works the same way as the old View Master toy. Each eye looks at a slightly different image projected on a screen, just as in the real world each eye sees the world from a slightly different perspective. In both cases the brain combines the two images and makes one which appears 3D. But neither the VR industry, nor the makers of View Master invented this idea. Its origins lie almost two centuries ago, in the middle of the nineteenth century. 

One of the Special Collections stereoscopes
One of the Special Collections stereoscopes

Swem Library’s Special Collections Research Centre has boxes and boxes of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century version of virtual reality technology. They are called stereoscopic images, and are looked at through a stereoscope like this one. The idea was developed at the time photography was invented in the 1830s. A special camera with two apertures, about the same distance apart as human eyes, would take two almost identical pictures of the same scene. But the pictures were not in fact identical, and replicated the way the eyes view the world – from slightly different perspectives. When looked at through a viewer the two photos would be combined by the brain to make one, seemingly 3D image, bringing the world into the room – a virtual reality.

“The Inspiring Heights of the World’s Greatest Skyscraper – Looking Down on Empire State Building from an Airship, New York City”, Keystone View Company Collection Tour of the World, circa 1892-1933, 1936, MS 00008, Box 1, Item 29
“The Inspiring Heights of the World’s Greatest Skyscraper – Looking Down on Empire State Building from an Airship, New York City”, Keystone View Company Collection Tour of the World, circa 1892-1933, 1936, MS 00008, Box 1, Item 29

These were an incredibly popular medium for entertainment, instruction, titillation, and arm-chair travel, although they fell out of fashion with the coming of radio and films. The SCRC has thousands of these items, and in normal times we show them to classes which visit us, in particular, the ‘Tour of the World’ collection of a thousand images. These photos were made to show a world which was contemporary and real to the first viewers, including those places which they could never travel to themselves. Now, of course, they allow our students to travel through both time and space to moments and places that might otherwise be lost to us. While right now these are largely unused because we aren’t having in-person classes in Special Collections, they are a timely reminder that virtual learning is nothing new.

“The Aztec Calendar Stone, or Stone of the Sun, National Museum, Mexico City”, Keystone View Company Collection Tour of the World, circa 1892-1933, 1936, MS 00008, Box 1, Item 83
“The Aztec Calendar Stone, or Stone of the Sun, National Museum, Mexico City”, Keystone View Company Collection Tour of the World, circa 1892-1933, 1936, MS 00008, Box 1, Item 83

References:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/sterographs-original-virtual-reality-180964771/