The 3-D Graphics Revolution of 1859—and How to See in Stereo on Your iPhone

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recreations of the life of Jesus. During Word War I, stereo views captured on the battlefields of Europe gave people back home a glimpse of that war’s massive troop movements and its horrifying carnage. (One of the stereographs I found at the book fair is a World War I view appropriately entitled “Human Wreckage.”)

Popular interest in stereoscopes and stereo views tapered off gradually after the rise of motion pictures and radio, although the technology continued to be used for educational purposes in many classrooms into the 1950s. Stereo photography has been kept alive to this day—though more as a toy than as a serious documentary or artistic medium—by the View-Master, in which the traditional 3-by-7-inch stereograph card is replaced by a paper disk holding seven pairs of transparencies.

Vintage stereoscopes and stereo views are plentiful on eBay, and I confess that my book-fair adventure seems to be blooming into a binge of acquisitiveness. Waiting for me at home, as yet unpacked, is a series of medical stereographs reportedly so grisly that the seller wouldn’t show them on his eBay page. Meanwhile, I’ve scanned my initial collection of stereo cards and posted them on Flickr.

Now, dear reader, if you’ve read any of my previous columns, you know that I’m not likely to ramble on about history for 1,100 words without eventually bringing the discussion back to modern media technology. What relevance does the stereographic technology of the 19th and early 20th centuries have today, when we have so many other ways to obtain information? I want to leave you with two thoughts.

Genesee Falls, New York, Stereo ViewFirst, newer is not always better. It may sound unlikely to anyone who has not taken the time to view one of the old stere images in a vintage stereoscope, but the 3-D effect produced by the best stereograph cards is stunning, even vertiginous. In an age of mostly 2-D imagery viewed on newsprint or flat screens, we have forgotten the impact that the third dimension can add. If you thought the latest Xbox video game or high-definition plasma display was “immersive,” you should see the images captured by the masters of the genre, photographers like Benjamin Kilburn, Chalres Bierstadt, and Eadward Muybridge.

Second, you don’t actually need a stereoscope or even physical stereograph cards to appreciate these old images. By “parallel free-viewing” the images, you can usually see the stereo effect even on a regular computer monitor. Free-viewing takes a bit of practice, but it’s worth the effort. There’s a tutorial on it here; it’s all about staring at the two images, relaxing your eyes until you see the “third” image that forms between the left and right images, then focusing in on that image. All of the stereograph images that I’ve included in my Flickr set can be viewed in this way.

Once you’ve mastered free-viewing on a regular computer display, here’s some dessert. (Non-iPhone owners: You can stop reading here unless you’re really interested.) I’ve tested free-viewing on my iPhone, and it works really well. The little black phone with its high-resolution screen turns out to be a great medium for stereo images—much better than I would have thought, given that the iPhone’s display is about half the size of a traditional stereograph card.

The implications are exciting. The iPhone and the iPod Touch make it so easy to grab images from the Internet (and/or store them in the built-in photo album) that it’s now feasible to think of your smartphone as a portable stereo viewer, with access to a potentially unlimited supply of images.

My stereo view collection on Seadragon Mobile[Update, November 28, 2009: The method spelled out in this paragraph for viewing my PhotoZoom collection using Microsoft’s Seadragon Mobile app no longer appears to work. I advise going straight to my Flickr stereograph photoset on your iPhone and viewing individual images in landscape mode.] To start you off, I’ve uploaded the scans of my own small stereograph card collection to a Microsoft Live Labs photo sharing service called PhotoZoom. You can access the collection by downloading Microsoft’s new Seadragon Mobile app from the iTunes App Store. (I highly recommend Seadragon Mobile in any case—Live Labs calls it a “technology preview,” and it is definitely not fully baked, but it’s still a fantastic tool for exploring large collections of images.) To get to my stereographs, open Seadragon Mobile, then tap the + button, then tap RSS Feed, then type in the following URL:

http://photozoom.mslivelabs.com/API/AlbumListFeed.ashx?alias=waderoush

You have to type it exactly—unfortunately you can’t paste it in. (Microsoft says it’s working on an easier way to connect to PhotoZoom collections, so these instructions could become outdated after the next update of Seadragon Mobile.) Now you should have access to two photo albums; select the one called Stereo Views. The other, HD Gallery, is just a collection of favorite photos I’ve taken over the last few years.

Now you should be able to zoom in on any of the stereo views. Tilt your iPhone to landscape (horizontal) orientation. Enlarge a single stereograph until a matched pair of images exactly fills the screen. Hold your iPhone about 8 inches from your nose, and try free-viewing the image.

After a bit of practice, the images will pop right out at you—as if your iPhone had suddenly become a window on a real location. Let me know how it works for you! If you don’t want to download Seadragon Mobile and go through the RSS rigmarole, you can always copy the stereograph images from my Flickr photoset to your computer one at a time, then transfer them to your iPhone’s photo album using iPhoto. I’ll add new stereographs (including, perhaps, the grisly medical ones) as time allows. Meanwhile, welcome to the new old world of 3-D photography.

Addendum, January 29, 2009: Today’s Very Short List: Web highlights a project by blogger Joshua Heineman to turn stereographs from the collection of the New York Public Library into animated GIF images that wiggle back and forth between the right and left views, creating the illusion of depth without any need for a stereoscope or free viewing. The images are quite startling in this format—check them out here.

Addendum, February 14, 2009: I’ve scanned the series of anatomical stereographs mentioned above and added them to my Flickr photoset. Caution: they’re not for the queasy or the faint of heart. In most of the views, human cadavers have been bisected or flayed, and their individual parts meticulously numbered with tiny typewritten numbers attached to pins. I don’t have the key to the labels, nor do I have any idea how these cards were produced—they appear to have been printed commercially but then pasted by hand onto their cardboard backings for viewing in a stereoscope, and they came to me inside a handmade wooden toolbox. If you’ve heard of similar stereographs or have any clues about where these might have originated, please send me a note at wroush@xconomy.com.

Continue to Page 3 for a slide show of my scanned stereograph images.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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