Have you seen the latest 3-D movie? Oh wait, I forgot, nobody cares about 3-D movies anymore. Two years ago 3-D technology was going to revolutionize the movie and TV industries but now it appears to have been just another fad.
It’s not the first time; 3-D, or stereovision, has been around longer than photography. Every once in a while a new method comes along, takes the world by storm, then gradually fades away, leaving a pile of gadgets for collectors to find and treasure.
Stereovision is based on the premise, first discovered by the Greek mathematician Euclid in 280 A.D., that we perceive depth because each of our eyes sees two dissimilar images of the same object, which our brain then fuses into one 3-D image. It wasn’t until 1600 that Giovanni Battista della Porta made the first artificial 3-D drawing based on Euclid’s theory. It’s basically two images side-by-side and it is possible to train your eyes to see them as one image by making yourself go cross-eyed, a difficult and sometimes painful process.
Meanwhile Leonardo da Vinci studied depth perception as an artistic challenge. In 1584 he produced the first paintings that showed an understanding of viewpoint. Using da Vinci’s principles paintings could have a depth that, while not as dramatic as 3-D, was much easier on the eyes.
In 1833 English inventor Charles Wheatstone became the first person to build a device that could trick the eyes into seeing two separate flat images as one three dimensional image. It used two mirrors in the centre placed at a 45° angle to each eye and two images off to each side. It worked but was not very practical; fortunately photographic imagery was perfected a year later, making it much easier to produce the necessary images.
Scottish inventor David Brewster created the first stereoscope that used lenses, small enough to be held in the hand. The Brewster stereoscope was presented at the Great Exhibition of 1851 where it was much admired by Queen Victoria. Of course that meant everybody had to have one and the first 3-D craze was started.
American poet and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes came up with a more elegant version in 1863. He deliberately did not patent it and his design was widely copied. The craze was well established by now; virtually every middle class household had a stereoscope, it was bigger at the time than TV was a hundred years later, when production of the stereoscope stopped. The Holmes stereoscopes are the kind you usually find today; they are relatively common but still popular and necessary if you want to get the full effect of the cards or stereographs that were made for them.
The device was originally intended as an educational tool but the most popular cards were travel oriented or novelty, even racy, stories issued as a series of photographs, with captions. Some were news-oriented; viewers could even see soldiers in far off battles. As photographic technology improved, most notably with the stereo version of the Brownie camera, it became possible for amateur photographers to make stereographs on a small scale.
The cards are still collected today; travel cards are the most common, typically selling for $1 or $2 a piece, news and amateur photographs are the most desirable especially in a complete set.
The 3-D stereoscope craze ended when motion pictures came along as a better way to deliver entertainment and news. Right from the start the motion picture industry tried to find a way to effectively deliver 3-D to their audiences but while it’s relatively simple to trick one pair of eyes, it is very difficult to do that to a room full of them. The first attempt actually used stereoscopes but that proved impractical in a theatre.
We all know of the red and green colour separation method, and the weird glasses you had to wear to make sure each eye sees the proper image. Called the anaglyph process it was first tested at the Astor Theatre in New York City in 1915 but the early equipment was expensive, bulky and unreliable; the idea was soon abandoned. There were other attempts but none of them caught on.
The invention of Kodak colour film sparked a new 3-D craze with still pictures. In 1939 in Portland, Oregon William Gruber developed a camera rig for taking stereo photographs using Kodak film transparencies. Harold Graves, who ran a photographic service, saw potential in it; they formed a partnership and called their new company View-Master. Their innovation was to put photographs on a round disc, or reel, which slipped into a plastic viewer so customers could see a series in full colour 3-D just by flicking a lever.
They also saw this new stereo viewer as an educational tool and the U.S. Military used it extensively as such during World War II, but gradually it became a children’s entertainment toy. View-Master cemented their dominance of the industry when they contracted with Disney for exclusive rights to display their characters on View-Master reels.
20th century stereo viewers are a perfect collectable. Although View-Master is king, there were at least 60 other companies world-wide producing similar devices in all kinds of shapes, sizes and colours. Their sheer ubiquity makes it easy to start a collection inexpensively, the endless variety means you can dedicate your life to collecting them (and apparently some do) and still not come close to finding them all. Then there’s all the reels and packaging; it can make your head swim, in 3-D.
Meanwhile the motion picture industry hadn’t completely given up on 3-D. By the late 1940s technology had improved enough that anaglyph films were now economically viable. However despite the fact that colour was used to separate the images, the final product was in black and white.
Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid lens, had conceived the idea of reducing glare by polarizing light into separate planes. He knew his system could also be used for 3-D projection and deliver images in full colour. He actively promoted it however, his system required two separate reels of film and two projectors which were difficult to synchronize.
The 1950s saw a resurgence of 3-D films, most of them in the horror genre using the anaglyph system. Even Alfred Hitchcock jumped on board but in the end, the films became a joke famously parodied on SCTV. 3-D was seen as a gimmick that added very little to the film experience.
Digital technology has made 3-D much easier to produce and that’s lead to this latest round but it seems to be headed for the same fate as the last; ultimately it just isn’t worth the trouble. Part of the reason goes back to the science.
Euclid was right in his determination of how we perceive depth but we now know it is only valid at short distances, up to three feet. After that we rely more on da Vinci’s model; parallel lines converge, smaller objects are farther away, our brains figure it out.
When it comes to visual entertainment it’s our connection to the story line that counts most. 3-D does nothing to enhance that, in fact, the effects often replace good story lines. If you’re thinking 3-D is great for sports, puts you on the field, remember most games are best viewed from a distance.
Stereo sound prevailed because it enhances the user experience; symphony orchestras sound better in stereo, pop musicians learned to forgo the gimmicks and use the technology wisely. It would have failed if you had to wear earphones to hear it.
Somehow it’s reassuring to know that, even though technology delivers art, it is still art that counts most. Euclid was right but Leonardo da Vinci pointed the way.