Seventeen-year-old Palmer Luckey built his first prototype for a virtual reality head-mounted display in his parents’ garage. Just a few years later, he debuted the Oculus Rift headset at the 2012 E3 gaming conference. The device’s small size, high quality, and relatively low cost reinvigorated the video game industry’s largely stagnant efforts to bring fully immersive, 3D gaming to the mass market. A huge Kickstarter campaign to fund further development followed, adding to the VR buzz.
In 2014, Google responded with the launch of Google Cardboard, an inexpensive alternative to the Oculus Rift that requires only a smartphone and a special cardboard-and-plastic viewer to experience VR. The same year, Facebook bought the Oculus VR company. In a statement announcing the acquisition, Mark Zuckerberg wrote, “The incredible thing about the technology is that you feel like you’re actually present in another place with other people. People who try it say it’s different from anything they’ve ever experienced in their lives.”
Zuckerberg’s statement echoes the praise lavished on a similar immersive technology, albeit one created 150 years earlier. In an 1859 essay for The Atlantic, Oliver Wendell Holmes described the newest 3D technologies—the stereograph and stereoscope. According to Holmes, these inventions could “produce an appearance of reality which cheats the senses with its seeming truth.” Holmes gushed over their ability to transport the viewer to another world. With a stereoscopic viewer in hand, he looked
. . . into the eyes of the caged tiger, and on the scaly train of the crocodile, stretched on the sands of the river that has mirrored a hundred dynasties. I stroll through Rhenish vineyards, I sit under Roman arches, I walk the streets of once buried cities . . . and leave my outward frame in the arm-chair at my table, while in spirit I am looking down upon Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.
How could the stereoscope take Holmes on such incredible journeys? Through a principle called stereopsis, which allows inventions like the stereoscope (and today’s VR devices) to create the illusion of 3D from a 2D image.
Your eyes see two slightly different versions of the world. Many of us learned this as bored kids. Remember this trick? Look at a stationary object in front of you. Close one eye, and then switch to closing the other. The object appears to move from side to side. Our brain combines the two inputs into a single image, giving us our sense of depth and the ability to experience the world in three dimensions. British scientist Charles Wheatstone first described this phenomenon in 1838. He also created a tabletop device that used mirrors and hand-drawn pictures to demonstrate the effect—the first stereoscope.
The creation of stereoscopic technology dovetailed perfectly with the advent of photography. Stereographs, two photos of the same scene taken at slightly different angles and printed side by side, were developed for use in new handheld stereoscopes made with glass lenses. From the 1850s to the 1920s, companies produced hundreds of thousands of stereographs for purchase in stores, by mail order, or from door-to-door salesmen. At pennies apiece, stereographs allowed middle class families to travel the world from the safety and serenity of their parlors.
If you’d like to try the marvel of Victorian VR for yourself, check out the tutorial below to create your own stereograph and stereoscope.