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Posted by Big Boo on March 17th, 2009

viewmasterOn Sunday my nephew showed me one of his new DVDs, the computer animated film Fly Me To The Moon, about three flies who hitch a ride on a space craft to the moon.  One of the interesting features of this DVD was that as well as the standard version there was also a version of the film that was in 3D, requiring you to wear a pair of those funny glasses with the blue and red lenses.

We watched a bit of it, but soon switched back to the standard version so we did have to watch everything in a strange purple tinted monochrome, and because it made your eyes ache after a while.  The 3D effect was quite good though, assuming you could get the cardboard 3D glasses close enough to your eyes to make it work – tricky if you wear glasses.

Anyway, all that aside, this reminded me of the good old View-Master toy, which was capable of generating an incredibly good 3D effect, even if it was only with still images.  The View-Master was usually made of red plastic, and looked like a really odd pair of binoculars.  Insert one of the special picture discs and look through the eye holes and you’d see a scene which popped out at you in three dimensions.  Pull the little lever at the side of the toy and the disc would rotate to reveal the next image.

The View-Master generates this incredible effect by displaying a slightly different image to each eye.  Why does this work?  Well, we have two eyes which each have a slightly different view of the world.  Our brains take these two slightly different images and we can then perceive depth.  The View-Master basically just takes advantage of this to trick our brains into thinking that we’re looking at a three dimensional scene, when in fact it’s actually just two 2D images!

When you bought your View-Master you normally got a single demonstration disc with it, but you could buy extra sets of discs to expand your collection.  Some of these were of general interest, but many were licensed TV show or film tie-ins.  Two sets I remember having personally were of Rupert the Bear and The Flintstones.  I believe models of the various characters had been made and photographed to give the images a very solid look, rather than being hand drawn cartoon images.  The discs told a story, with text describing each scene visible in a little viewing window in the middle of the View-Master.

It may surprise you to know that the View-Master has actually been around since 1938, so has been around for more than 70 years in one form or another.  It was not originally conceived as a children’s toy either, instead being an educational tool for adults, or a fancy alternative to postcards.  The US Military even bought thousands of them during World War II as a training aid for aircraft spotting!  For more on the history and a complete reference to the various models that have been available over the years take a look at the comprehensive 20th Century Stereo Viewers website.  The View-Master is still in production, currently under the auspices of Fisher Price, so you can follow the link for the official View-Master website.

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