|Eyecandy article, final draft
Anthony Unatin, content contributor
Mar. 11th, 2005
Travelling in a circle, two images at a time.
The View-Master is best known as a clunky plastic toy that has delighted both children and adults with reels of three-dimensional images for over six decades. The View-Master’s basic design, which has remained the same over its sixty-six year history, relies on the fact that human beings see depth as a combination of two images, one in each eye, each from slightly different angles. The brain’s calculation of this difference results in our perception of depth. This physiological effect is called stereoscopy, and is duplicated in stereoscopic photography to produce an image that simulates three-dimensional eyesight. The resulting images have remarkable depth; backgrounds recede into the distance while objects in the foreground appear close enough to touch. View-Master reels each contain seven stereoscopic images on a circular cardboard disk, fourteen images in all, which are viewed through an eyepiece that blocks out all other vision. The images are advanced by a small lever on the side of the viewer. The unique construction of the View-Master makes it a medium that is incredibly private. Its stereoscopic images are viewed only by the individual, a fact that has caused the View-Master to become a form of popular media that is inextricably linked to memory and virtual experience.
The View-Master was an improved version of an earlier stereoscopic photograph viewer known simply as the stereoscope. The stereoscope was created by Sir Charles Wheatstone within the academy, and originally relied on a visibly complex system of mirrors to combine two images into one that was stereoscopic. It only became popularized when Sir David Brewster created the lenticular stereoscope, described by Laura Burd Schiavo,
Far more convenient and less awkward than Wheatstone’s, the Brewster stereoscope refined the instrument’s market appeal…By hiding the physiological roots of the stereoscopic image, Brewster’s stereoscope omitted the productive or phenomenological nature of the device, and of vision itself, making the stereoscope nothing more than a tool for the enhancement of mimetic representation.1
Just as the physical apparatus of the stereoscope had to be hidden for it to be accepted as a popular commodity, the apparatus of the View-Master had to be packaged. The “phenomenological nature of the device” is hidden, so that the effect of the device seems to happen intangibly. The science behind the lenticular stereoscope became hidden from the viewer within the casing, distracting the viewer's attention from the device itself to the image. For the View-Master the same effect was produced by replacing the original clamshell design, which exposed the inner workings of the machine when it was opened to load reels, with a solid Bakelite model with a slit to insert the reel.2 In this way the construction of the View-Master mimics the stereoscope, as both are designed to emphasize the viewer's experience of the image and deemphasize their knowledge of the apparatus. This was a key step in making the View-Master a repository of virtual experience, not just pretty pictures.
The View-Master was from its inception linked to the souvenir, a physical object that acts as a reminder of some past experience. The souvenir does not necessarily act as a symbol of one’s own experience, it can be a kind of gift of virtual memories from afar, described by Cameron Bailey in her article “Virtual Skin: Articulating Race in Cyberspace:”
My first experience of virtual community came in Rock Dundo, Barbados, 1969, when I first jacked in to a smooth, plastic, khaki-colored ViewMaster. My mother, thousands of kilometers away in Canada, sent me both the machine and its software-disks that brought to life before my eyes images I had never seen before: Niagara Falls and Flowerpot Island and Toronto City Hall in stereoscopic vision. It would be two decades before I tried on a helmet, but I knew the thrill of virtual reality right then. I was transported. Every time I returned to that machine I left the postcolonial sunshine behind for the marvels of Canada. Immersed in the depth, resolution, and brightness of those images, I became a part of Canada, sharing an experience with every tourist who had paused to get a good look at new city hall, who had marveled at the falls.3
Here the View-Master is used as a reminder of a virtual, rather than a real experience. Bailey’s comparison of the View-Master to a virtual reality helmet is particularly apt, as both are designed to give the sensation of having a certain experience, while blocking out all other experience. This desire for a medium that will act as a technological substitute for travel was not new, but rather a sophistication of ideas already present in the day of the stereoscope, as described by Judith Babbitts,
The end sought, the goal of travel, was to acquire experience in the form of feelings, and eventually, memories. Viewers would have the same feelings if they were on a stereoscopic tour or actually present in the country… The stereoscope delivered ‘the same visual impressions in all essential respects as if there in our own bodies.’4
The improvement of the View-Master from the stereoscope was in its physical interface with the user, which emulated the travelogue, a series of tourist sights from a particularly attractive area of the world. This interface was much different than the stereoscope, because each picture did not have to be part of a sequential whole (The stereoscope utilized images on single cards rather than the View-Master's circular reels). The View-Master’s interface allowed the viewer to control the pace of the image sequence, which was always coherent and set. Therefore, the interface gave control over pace, but only limited control over order, similar to a carousel slide projector, another medium associated with tourism and memory. Due to the physical construction of the View-Master, the viewer gets a tiny, private version of publicly viewed subject matter that is under their own personal control, just like a sequence of remembered images.
View-Master reel content gradually changed from the travelogue model to duplication of other media content. This had been going on since the early 1950s, when Sawyer’s acquired the rights to produce reels of Disney cartoon characters, and was solidified in 1989 when Tyco bought the rights to View-Master. Now the View-Master is solely an ancillary market for children’s media content.5 Nevertheless, View-Master reels have become prized collectors items, with a promotional reel for the Vincent Price horror classic House of Wax recently selling for over three hundred dollars.6 Indeed, a quick search on EBay results in page after page of View-Master memorabilia, from the vintage to the brand new. Reels and viewers can be easily acquired at antique shops or toy fairs, due to almost constant production through the last two-thirds of the twentieth century. The View-Master remains a popular Christmas gift for young children, although perhaps this has more to do with parental nostalgia than youthful desire for the toy. Interest in the View-Master has outlived its status as a widespread media commodity, implying that its unique construction and history ensure it will be remembered by media historians and the young at heart for many years to come.