Brian May is an avid fan of stereoscopy – a 3D viewing technique developed in the 19th century – with a personal collection of over 100,000 stereoscopic images. Stereoscopes have eyepieces that present two images of the same scene, taken from slightly different angles, to each eye. This system mimics the way our eyes work, and makes images come to life with the illusion of depth.
The OWL VR Smartphone Kit is a new virtual reality setup inspired by this Victorian technique that works with any smartphone. Brian spoke to How It Works to tell us how his passion for stereoscopy began, and how the £25 OWL can bring VR to the masses…
You describe yourself as a bit of a stereoscopy geek. How did you first get into it?
It happened when I opened a packet of Weetabix and out came a little card with two pictures on it. I thought ‘oh my god what’s that?’ And it said on the packet send away one and a sixpence and a packet top and get a viewer, which I did. The viewer arrived and I put the card in the viewer, and suddenly instead of two little flat pictures you could see one astoundingly real-looking 3D picture. I remember so clearly it was a hippopotamus I had first, and I felt that I was falling into the open mouth of the hippopotamus. It was so real you could almost smell it, and certainly feel like you could touch it. I was just bowled over and thought why doesn’t everybody do this all the time?
If you can take stereo pictures, or 3D pictures as I was calling them then, why doesn’t everybody do this? Why would anybody bother with a flat picture if you can do this? When I finally made a little bit of money with Queen I was able to go back and buy some of this stuff and start accumulating a collection. I carried my stereoscopic camera with me all through those Queen days and I have a lovely collection of images of us on stage and off, which will eventually find its way into a book that you can use with the OWL. So you can experience what I experienced all those years ago in a virtual reality kind of way. This ridiculously simple bit of apparatus, which is basically a fridge magnet, converts the OWL into a virtual reality machine because that sticks your phone on and you’re off. The phone is your gateway to the universe, and the phone plus the OWL is your gateway to the stereoscopic universe. It’s so simple.
How does the OWL differ from other smartphone VR headsets?
You never lose sight of the controls on your phone, which I find is important to people. Your phone is now a part of your body and unfortunately when people put their phone inside Google Cardboard, they lose it and start to panic. I know I do! And they strap it to their head a feel a thrill for a moment and then they get a bit hot and bothered and it’s too heavy and claustrophobic, so that don’t have that much of an endurance for it. So this is the answer to anyone who wants to experience virtual reality in a way that is affordable, and also very controllable.
What do you think will be the main applications for virtual reality technology?
I think entertainment is great, but we have yet to see a virtual reality movie that makes sense. I’ve seen some attempts but it’s a very difficult because you don’t know where to look, and also people don’t have much patience to sit with an Oculus Rift on their head for two hours. I think you tell stories in different ways with virtual reality. The Victorian’s used to sit with one stereo card for hours and look at all the detail. So the stuff that works, like our Jurassic app, is childishly simple. The 3Dimensionality is great and it’s truly interactive because if you look in that direction, you move in that direction. So you’re sort of determining your story, and I think that’s when virtual reality really works. You’re experiencing what’s around you. I have 3D pictures of my kids when they were toddlers and it’s incredibly powerful to look at them with the OWL and see then how they were. It’s like they still exist in that form.
It also give you chance to experience things through other people’s eyes, more powerfully than ever before. You could be sitting in the International Space Station looking down on the Earth, you could be on top of Mount Everest, you could be at the bottom of the sea with sharks swimming around you. You might never want to come out of that. You might want to just be there forever.
Do you think this technology has educational benefits as well?
Yes, I think there are things that you can portray through virtual reality that you would find impossible to describe or experience in a book. You could imagine that you are a fox being chased by a pack of hounds, and find out what it feels like. You can’t build the pain in, at least not yet, but you can perhaps teach people to empathise with other humans and also other creatures, and I find that a very interesting prospect.
How do you think VR could benefit space research and exploration?
Yes it’s monumental. NASA is at the forefront of gathering all the data, which you would need to build the content. Imagine actually experiencing a journey to Pluto in virtual reality. You could experience walking around on Mars or going through the rings of Saturn. The possibilities are limitless.
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