michael naimark

A Cheap Consumer Immersive Viewer

The Vision: A hand-held inexpensive “toy” that, when held up to the eyes, displays a high-resolution, properly scaled, stereoscopic image. The image may be still or video, and may include audio. Importantly, this device has “lookaround” whereby its user can naturally access the entire panorama. It is designed for casual, easy to use, immersive experiences, ones that are easily shared.

The extreme application is looking around an actual place, live, from specially designed “VR Webcams.” They could be in a live war zone, a rainforest, or family birthday party.

Background: A hundred years ago, there was the stereoscope. It was a (fairly adult) hand-held “instrument” often made of fine wood, used to view stereoscopic, high-resolution, still images. These images were mostly of places of interest around the world. The 3.5 by 7 inch format was standardized early on, and both stereoscopes and view cards had many and diverse makers. The stereoscope was both a successful industry and artform.

Fifty years ago, there was the ViewMaster. It was inexpensive and marketed primarily as a children’s toy. At its peak, the imagery was mostly place-based. The format was standardized but closed to independent producers and distributors, and over the years the imagery drifted more toward commercial properties such as popular movies and cartoon characters. Still, the ViewMaster was a major commercial venture with strongly persistent emotional memories among the Baby Boom generation.

Fifteen years ago, “virtual reality” peaked, at least in popular media. VR was characterized as immersive goggles tethered to expensive computers. VR today is dominated by a small number of surviving companies selling specialized, expensive gear. Less visibly, excellent progress continues in the research world.

The idea of a stereoscope and ViewMaster “comeback” is inevitable, with the only questions being “when?” and “by whom?” This is a project I've been championing since 2003 as an exemplar for an arts lab, with help from MIT and NYU.

Next steps: As fate would have it, the largest concentration of seasoned VR experts in this area is in the USC Interactive Media Division. Cultivate a sponsored research program there.

(last updated 27 March 2006)


31 July 2006: A sponsored research program for consumer immersive viewer research will be used as a case study for USC's Marshall School of Business "Radical Innovation" class (GSBA 585) this fall.

05 February 2007: At the Dean's request, a one-page executive brief was made.

25 April 2012: USC colleagues Mark Bolas and Perry Hoberman premiere FOV2GO, the first cardboard / smartphone VR viewer.

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