Parallel inventions

In a way, the history of the iPhone and its ilk parallels the history of the stereoscope. Both of them seemingly burst upon the scene when the time was right, although neither one was exactly new.

The modern era of the stereoscope actually dates back to around 1823. That was just a year after the invention of first permanent technology for recording photographs, although that first stereoscope wasn’t used with photographs, since most people didn’t really know about photography yet.

But it wasn’t until 1849 that Sir David Brewster got the configuration right. His device was used to make a stereograph of Queen Victoria which proved so popular at the Great Exhibition in London of 1851 that 250,000 of them were made. Photography was new then in the public mind, and this little gadget represented to many people the magic of living in the modern age made possible by photography.

Similarly, the iPhone wasn’t the first “smart phone”. But Apple got all the details right, and the first iPhone hit it big in 2007, starting a vast craze for smart phones that continues to this day. The idea of “carrying the web with you in your pocket” was new then in the public mind, and this little gadget represented to many people the magic of living in the modern age made possible by portable computerized communication devices.

Of course we now know that the two inventions are linked. Although many tinkerers quickly started pointing a stereo pair of lenses at the iPhone soon after its introduction in 2007 (mostly using an arrangement similar to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1861 configuration of the stereoscope), the earliest significant play was Hasbro.

In 2010 Hasbro came out with their My3D stereo viewer that worked with the iPhone. The My3D was, of course, a riff on that iconic earlier variant of the stereoscope, the View-Master, which had been patented in 1939.

Pretty much everything we are seeing today in Virtual Reality is the result of combining these two key innovations, the stereoscope and the smart phone: two parallel inventions from different centuries that perhaps were not all that dissimilar in spirit.

Leave a Reply