Further to our posting Friday 19 October HERE, with a short clip of Brian May talking about stereo photography, BBC Future has now put on line a longer video.
Check out video HERE
Rock star Brian May revives Victorian virtual reality
13 December 2018 by Howard Timberlake
Not content with touring the world as a member of Queen, Brian May has also been busy bringing back Victorian 3D for a generation raised on digital technology.
Stereoscopy is a Victorian technique for creating an illusion of depth in an image. At its simplest, it involves viewing two images side-by-side that through a special viewer which turns them into a 3D image. At one point during the late 1800s it was a worldwide phenomenon – bringing virtual reality-like experiences of world-famous locations and people into millions of homes. But it has gradually waned, especially since computers and video games brought a different kind of ‘reality’ to our living rooms.
Now Queen’s Brian May, inspired by his own childhood experience of taking 3D images, wants to bring it back.
“3-D photography has been regarded as the poor man’s photography, the poor relation of photography, all through photographic history. It’s very strange. It’s been kind of looked down upon. But I think there’s no justification for that, and one of my missions in life is to really put 3-D photography where it should be in photographic history.
“Well, all my life I’ve been keen on stereo, as you probably know. When I went to college I used to go into Christie’s – Christie’s auctioneers in South Kensington. I had no money so I couldn’t buy anything, but I could view everything and I got to know what all these things did – all these beautiful old cameras, wonderful old Victorian viewers. So I have a good general knowledge even from those times of how things work and how they… how they made stereoscopy a national craze. It was huge.
“The London Stereoscopic Company in 1858 boasted a million views. This is a very big time and they went all round the world, to the States, particularly to France, where it was a huge craze as well, and the Victorians could see the world through the stereoscope.
“My own company is called the London Stereoscopic Company and obviously it’s inspired by the 1850’s original London Stereoscopic Company which became defunct about 1930, and really I’ve trodden a path very similar to what they did. i’m just obsessed with the idea of people getting back into this technology and enjoying 3-D as I do.
“3-D is all about getting two views really. That is what stereoscopy is. We have two eyes and the reason we see things in wonderful, glorious 3-D around us is because our brain puts these two slightly different pictures of the Universe together. So what you’re trying to do in 3-D photography is to recreate that effect.
“So what happened was, I’m eating my Weetabix cereal as a kid, about seven years old, and out of the Weetabix packet, pops a little card. Which looks like that. And you have two pictures side-by-side, which are very flat and not very inspiring, but I turned it over and it says “You must get a Weetabix 3-D viewer.” And here it is. And what you do is you put the card into the viewer. Like this. It just slots in. I’d never seen anything like this is my life. This was a revelation to me. But you look through, and instead of two flat pictures of hippos. You have… wow! Suddenly it’s like there’s a window and you could fall through the window into the mouths of these incredible creatures. So to me this was magic. I thought, ‘why doesn’t everybody do this the whole time? If you can take 3-D pictures, why would you bother taking 2-D pictures?’ you know, ‘why isn’t this worldwide-endorsed?’ So that was the behinning of my complete enchantment with stereo and it’s never left me.
“So, with my pocket money – two and sixpence to be exact – I could in Woolworths, this little camera. it’s a VP Twin – the first camera I ever owned. It’s not a high quality instrument, but it gave me what I wanted. And what I did was put it on the table and go ‘click’. Move it on the table, sliding, and ‘click’ again and I have my two pictures and I put them together on a card, So these are the first attempts that I made. I took a picture of my dad decorating the kitchen from outdoors and it’s not a perfect stereo picture, but it does work. So if you put it in the viewer like the Weetabix pictures, it works just fine. And this is in my Queen book, reproduced. I then got my dad to do the same thing and he took a picture of me in the garden and then he took a picture of me on my bike, which was also very new and exciting at the time. So these I have as little treasures from my childhood.
“We all remember where we were when something that affects us deeply happened. Like the death of Kennedy, for me, the death of Buddy Holly. And I remember exactly where we were when Neil Armstrong put his foot on the Moon. That’s one small step for [a] man. I was down in Cornwall with Rog, our drummer. One giant leap for mankind. In the very early days of Queen. We were doing a sort of tour of Cornwall at the time, I think, with the legendary drummer of Cornwall, who was Rog, and we’re all in his Mum’s house clustered around this tiny little TV screen about this size and we all watched it. It seemed like the most incredible thing ever and to me it still seems fresh and new and exciting. This is the space age, isn’t it?
“But you know, 50 years – I’m 50 years older and… no one had ever done a 3-D book on the whole Apollo history and we thought ‘can we do it?’ ‘Is it possible?’ ‘Is there enough material?’ The astronauts actually were trained in 3-D. Mostly. Although very often I think they were too busy to rally remember it and practise it, but they were taught how to do the ‘cha-cha-thing, so take a picture here, take a picture here, and eventually it would become a 30D picture. So occasionally you’re lucky enough to find one of those. But it’s fascinating. For me it’s a passion. I’m completely geeky where this is concerned so if we’re on tour with Queen, I’ll be back at the hotel at 3am trying to put two of these images together which Claudia has sent me, and make them work as a 3-D [image].
“So that’s what you see in the book. In the back of your Mission Moon 3-D book, you will find what you need to view in 3-D, which is the OWL Stereo Viewer. I’m very proud of this book. I think it’s one of the most beautiful we’ve ever managed to make. We’re quite a long way down the line now with stereo books. I think this is the sixth book we’ve done. A lot of it’s been classic 3-D – Victorian 3-D – which I love, but it’s the same principle. And this, if anything, brings Victorian 3-D technique into the 21st Century. And, you know, it’s still the best.
“I always had some kind of stereo camera with me and that’s why I was able to make this book because over the years touring and in studios and whatever with with my group, with Queen, I always had the stereo cameras.
“This is the analogue camera that I use; a Stereo Realist. It’s a wonderful piece of engineering, just wonderful. Made in the 1950s.
“There’s all sorts of little shots in here, they’re sort of candid pictures, because people were so used to me having this camera around. They weren’t self conscious, so they’re nice little kind of intimate views of what life was like on stage, but also offstage for us as a… as a growing bunch of musicians… adventuring into the world. So I was very happy to be able to do this. This ties up a lot of ends for me. I was glad that it actually made a book. I wasn’t sure if it would. When we started on the project I thought ‘do I have enough stuff?’ But, actually we had loads.
“VR [virtual reality] is the distant descendant of the Victorian stereoscopic viewer. And yes, it is rather strange to me. Now we can see the world; you can have a virtual reality experience of like being beside the Pyramids, and this is exactly what the Victorians did. The Victorians saw all these incredible places for the first time in incredible realism in their little dark rooms at night, looking through with candles lit and looking at their stereoscopic pictures. so, yeah, I love it and VR has made this stuff possible again, or it’s made it more accessible because you don’t have to explain what it is to people – every kid knows what VR is. So you present them with a stereoscope and they get it.”