Victorian-era photos of tech devices are inspiring today's virtual reality engineers

Key Points
  • Getty, which is working on a new series with Google, found inspiration in a different place in technology that was invented 150 years ago.
  • In the 19th century, the London Stereoscopic Company created a headset-like device that combined a pair of photographs taken a fraction of a second apart — which created the first iteration of VR.
  • These images can be viewed in Google Cardboard headsets today, emphasizing the power of capturing a moment in time for historical purposes.
View of an antique Stereoscope, or 3-D veiwer, early 1900s. The stereo image card in the viewer shows the Raymond Kill waterfall in Pennsylvania.
Black Archives | Getty Images

There's a running joke in the industry of virtual and augmented reality: Some of the world's top engineers are working on figuring out how to make it look like a whale is jumping out of your living room floor.

There seems to be a market for creating virtual fantasy worlds, like those in a video game, and for augmented reality, like video filters and job training programs.

But photography company Getty Images, which is working with companies like Google, found its inspiration in a different place: Technology that was invented 150 years ago.

In the 19th century, the London Stereoscopic Company created a headset-like device that combined a pair of photographs taken a fraction of a second apart — which you could call the first iteration of VR.

Stereoscope & cards used in teaching.
Martha Holmes | The LIFE Picture Collection | Getty Images

"Photography had barely been invented at this point," said Anthony Holland Parkin, Getty Images' head of VR and immersive content and senior director of editorial content. "It created an immersive experience. What's fascinating for me is how similar it is to things like Google Cardboard now. It was a very early precursor of that. These images at that time were very early forms of entertainment. It became incredibly popular. One of most popular was a tightrope walker on Niagra Falls, which sold 100,000 copies."

The popularity of stereoscopes was such that 250,000 of the devices were sold in Paris and London over a three month period in 1851.
SSPL | Getty Images

These devices are often dismissed as crude, like a throwaway pair of 3-D glasses or a View-Master toy. But Parkin said they have more in common with modern headsets than you'd think.

"There are 15,000 plates of this material, and it's not going to get lost because it's so valid now. We can play this content in headsets. We can play this in Google headsets, it brings it right up to date," Parkin said. "I'm effectively creating brand new video versions but I'm using bang up to date technology to create the same experience."

The images range from an immersive look at London's Strand district to horror experiences where a ghost pops out of a scene.

Sandwichboard men in the Strand advertise theatre seats, 1894. Savoy Street is on the right and the church of St Mary-le-Strand is in the background.
Hulton Archive | Getty Images

"What I love — this shot we have of the Strand here, you're being teleported back. This is a way of capturing a period of time that can't be recreated," he said. "What we don't talk about that often is time travel. In this instance, ok, it's just a still. But the content that everyone is starting to produce now, in 20 years time, 30 years time, we'll be using the footage created to travel back."

The ghost of Jim Stubbs, the previous occupant of the house, appears to a couple eating their dinner, circa 1865.
London Stereoscopic Company | Hulton Archive | Getty Images

Hand-drawn images have been used in stereoscopic technology since the 1600s, and computer scientists in the 1960s were able to create much of the digital virtual reality framework used today. But apart from big companies like defense contractors, Disney and Nintendo, there were limited technological resources to move the content and devices forward.

A stereoscopic card depicting a still life with fruit and flowers, circa 1865.
Roger Fenton | Hulton Archive | Getty Images

"Through the ages we've watched it develop. Disney filmed in 360-video very early. It takes you on a tour across America, which is amazing to view."

Lucas Studios points to 2012 as the turning point, when Oculus founder Palmer Luckey recognized that elements like batteries, semiconductors, and thin mobile-phone screens had created a palette for virtual reality that was much more affordable than ever before.

"We now have an incredibly high-quality visual device in our pockets. It's a very large screen, a multimedia display device," Parkin said. "Mobile has made VR accessible to anyone"

Parkin said the next phase of virtual reality will be allowing a full range of movement, where users can walk through an environment and feel the items they touch. But even simple technologies are already finding their way into companies that work with Getty, he said.

"People are trying to make you feel something," Parkin said. "We're seeing our customers pick that up. That is so much about making people experience things. Virtual anger management system, phobias, creating experiences that deal with that. The education sphere is very exciting for us."