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Why 3D is making a comeback in 2022 (part 2: a brief history of 3D viewers)

Why 3D is coming back in 2022 (Part 2: History of 3D Viewers)
Why 3D is coming back in 2022 (Part 2: History of 3D Viewers)

In part 1, I explored the history of 3D cameras. It’s equally fascinating to learn how stereo viewers came about. The following is a mere overview of some of the stereo viewers that were produced since the early part of the 19th century. There literally were hundreds of models – many designed to view multiple stereo images automatically and some to view color images before the invention of color film.

The discovery that it was possible to recreate depth using drawings representing the left and right perspective our eyes perceive was made by Charles Wheatstone in the early part of the 19th century. He found that if he placed a left eye view and a right eye view of a subject between a set of mirrors angled at 45 degrees and looked at the two images simultaneously, they would merge into a single three-dimensional view.


Wheatstone mirror stereoscope

When photography was invented, it took no time for some to do the same using photographs. But Wheatstone’s stereo viewer had one serious shortcoming if it were to come into common use: The left and right images had to be separate.

Another inventor by the name of Sir David Brewster came up with a more practical form of stereo viewer where the left and right images were placed side by side on a single support and viewed in a viewer with magnifying optics. It was this design that launched stereo photography on a large scale.

Brewster stereoscope

Countless versions of such stereo viewers were designed and sold over the 19th century, from very luxurious ones made of precious woods to very simple ones designed for affordability.

19th century 3D viewer

Among the most popular stereo viewers was the Holmes stereoscope designed by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Much of the reason for its popularity was the adoption of this viewer design by major stereo card manufacturers, which resulted in the production of thousands of stereocards compatible with this viewer.

Holmes stereoscope
Holmes stereoscope

As described in the first part of this article, near the end of the 19th century, personal compact stereo cameras were introduced that used glass plates and compatible stereo viewers were designed accordingly.

Verascope 3D viewer

Simple small print viewers were also designed to accommodate film cameras.

But it really was the introduction of colour slide film that saw the emergence of viewers that could show high resolution 3D images in colour. These appeared in the forties and fifties along with the large number of stereo cameras produced at the time. Among the best designed were the Realist, Kodaslide and TDC Vivid viewers, However, as with the cameras produced in the fifties, a myriad of such slide viewers became available, from the most advanced to the most simplistic.

Belcaskop 3D slide viewer

This period also saw the introduction of the View-Master viewer, which was conceived as a miniature 20th century equivalent of the Holmes stereoscope. Like the Holmes viewer, the View-Master was designed as a way to visit various exotic locations in 3D. But Sawyer’s – the manufacturer of the View-Master – also started to broaden the appeal of this viewer by producing a line of reels aimed at children. These featured highly elaborate clay dioramas that still fascinate to this day. In later decades, reels were also produced on scientific subjects, movies and TV shows.

View-Master Model B 3D viewer

In the early sixties, however, appeared a stereo viewer like no other. It was part of the Tri-Delta Prism stereo system. That viewer had the unique characteristic of displaying stereo pairs that were placed head to head on a single 35mm slide instead of side by side like every viewer before it. The purpose of this viewer was to allow one to take landscape format pictures with a regular 2D camera outfitted with a prism adapter.

Tri-Delta Prism Stereo viewer

The TriDelta Prism adapter, however, suffered a shortcoming in that its field of view was smaller than that of any stereo camera. This is why 3D enthusiasts continued to favour regular cameras outfitted with wide-angle lenses.

In the eighties, in view of the trend towards the use of custom 3D SLRs, new viewers were designed to fill that need by such enterprises as deWijs and Co Van Ekeren. These viewers featured lenses that covered a wider field of view corresponding to full-frame 35mm slides.

Co Van Ekeren full-frame 3D viewer

It may surprise many to learn that DeWijs even produced a high end aluminum View-Master viewer and still continues to produce both film and digital 3D viewers to this day.

deWijs deluxe View-Master viewer

Of course, the introduction of the Nimslo camera offered another type of 3D viewing – one that did not require any type of 3D viewer. This technique was by no means new. Lenticular images had been produced on a commercial level over many decades earlier. But it was the first time such technology was offered to the general public for taking their own 3D pictures.

Even though lenticular prints made with such simple cameras did not gain that much popularity at the time, they were to be the inspiration for a whole new approach to 3D viewing – that of digital glasses-free 3D displays.

In the third part of this series, I will show how 3D cameras and viewers have entered the digital era and what kind of future we can expect from 3D media.

About the author

Francois B

Francois B is a 3D photographer and researcher with several decades of experience. He has researched countless 3D patents and equipment over the years, many dating from the 19th and 20th century. He has also corresponded with several inventors behind those patents and designed his own 3D equipment. Since 2013, he has been beta-testing 3D products for various companies including CVision, Cinera, Mopic, EyeFly 3D, TriDef, etc. He currently acts as consultant for several enterprises developing 3D equipment.


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  • Hi Francois,

    Very nice quick run through 3D photo viewers history … and there were designed so many of those often beautiful masterpieces (many more than you could possibly fit in this article without overwhelming this subject). Until digital era arrived, those were only for still images (i.e. prints or transparencies). With digital cameras and digital viewers, the 3D medium got freed from the restrictions of a physical image presentation … pixels are very flexible, they can be arranged in any format … Over-Under (O/U, aka Top-Bottom), Side-by-Side (SBS), and with the possibility of on-the-fly digital processing even Half-Side-by-Side (HSBS) format can be used, not to mention VR180 format. What’s even more exciting is that the digital era also gave us a very easy way to watch the 3D video content on the same digital viewer. So far the camera and the viewer were two separate devices, but this status quo is about to be shaken, and in few days we will be given a chance to get a novel product … Qoocam Ego camera system, which combines the camera with the viewer … what a simple and brilliant idea … 3D life is good again 🙂


    • Hi Vlad,

      It isn’t quite correct that “so far camera and viewer were two separate devices”. The Fuji 3D cameras as well as the 3D phones from 2010 all had 3D displays – the difference being that they were using glasses-free displays while the EGO is using a more traditional twin lens system.

      • True, Fuji 3D cam and few mobile devices (also more recent like Red Hydrogen One phone or even still manufactured Leia LumePad tablet) have dual lens camera modules and glasses-free 3D screens. But those screens to me are rather more like image frames. For the viewer concept, I got “stuck” with the traditional definition. There is a bit of pleasant nostalgia feeling when I can bring the viewer close to my eyes and look at the image through the magnifying lenses in more details and within enclosed space of that viewer (space isolated from the external visual “noise”) … an experience almost comparable to using a modern VR viewer, although not so immersive of course. But no matter the definition, I’ll take any 3D viewing method available 🙂

  • Digital 3D viewers will still have a little ways to go to match the sheer information density found in a good stereo slide (particularly a medium format stereo pair). But, saying that, you can edit, enhance or HDR imagery, let alone make it interactive VR.

    • Digital 3D viewers will still have a little ways to go to match the sheer information density found in a good stereo slide

      Have you taken a look into the Cinera Prime viewer ? The resolution is amazing on this one. So I think we are pretty close.