How the Stereoscope paved the way for virtual reality

Earlier this week we posted about 360° video and how it goes hand in hand with modern day virtual reality. However, the concept of virtual reality as we know it today laid its roots in one of the most unexpected products.

Do you remember picking up your first View Master and watching a story unfold right before your eyes? For many this brings back a memorable moment in time of ones childhood. What if we were to tell you that those memories contributed to the rise of virtual reality as we know it? What most people don’t realize is that the View Master extended from a not so known device called the Stereoscope. Let’s take a look at how the Stereoscope paved the way for modern day virtual reality technology.

The story of the stereoscope begins in 1838 with Sir Charles Wheatstone. Wheatstone was the first person known to develop a process for converting standard image into a stereoscopic image. The process involved taking two images and fusing them into one image creating a 3D image. This same technique is used with modern day virtual reality headsets to immerse viewers in a 360° virtual space.

Sir Charles Wheatstone’s Stereoscope in 1838

Contrary to popular belief many believe that David Brewster was the inventor of the first Stereoscope. The Brewster Stereoscope, invented in 1870, has a more modern look that we’re used to.

David Brewster’s Stereoscope in 1870

The Stereoscope many of us recognize today (also known as the “View Master”) came about in the mid 1900s. In 2014 Google released the Google Cardboard a paper crafted Stereoscope that uses iOS and Android smartphones to create the stereoscopic effect. Applications and video streaming services like YouTube splice dedicated images together and display them on your phone’s screen forming a 3D image that essentially creates a makeshift virtual reality device. Instead of displaying images from film reels like the View Master did you can use apps designed for the Google Cardboard to create a modern day Stereoscope!

View Master from the 1980’s

In the modern day world of virtual reality the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive are two products seeking to change the game. These headsets take the same concept of the Stereoscope and add in the power of the personal computer to generate graphical and immersive worlds for people to experience. These experiences are generated using stereoscopy which is the technique developed by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838 for creating the illusion of depth in an image. This term derives from the Greek word “Stereo” meaning to be firm or solid, and the Greek word “Skopeo” meaning to look or see. It is amazing to see a technique developed over 179 years ago create tantalizing virtual experiences with the help of modern day personal computers. You may also have noticed this technique used to create the 3D images in REALD 3D movies at the movie theatre.  

One thing we do know for sure is that virtual reality is something new and exciting and is here to stay. It is an evolving technology that should be embraced as it lays the groundwork for how people will interact and share experiences in the future. Next time you’re in Best Buy looking at the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive remember that although the technology seems new and maybe even a bit frightening, it was embraced almost 200 years ago by people looking to change how we embrace experiences.

Brett Brooks is a Partner at RedFox Creative. For more information or to submit a comment email



One thought on “How the Stereoscope paved the way for virtual reality

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s