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Regular version of the site

History of a Single Illusion

How interest in 3D films led to the double discovery of autostereograms

Autostereogram ‘Granny’s Last Wish’, 1969 / © Wikimedia Commons

At the end of 1960s, Pete Stephens serendipitously discovered a way to create an autostereogram — an image that creates an illusion of volume without the use of special equipment. However, in fact, this illusion had been described by Lev Mogilev from Irkutsk State University, even earlier in the 1960s. This ‘double discovery’ may have been the result of popular interest in 3D cinema at the time. IQ.HSE cites a paper by researcher Tadamasa Sawada to discuss this double rediscovery of autostereograms.

The history of science has seen many cases of parallel discoveries, and it is not uncommon that the first discovery can often remain in the shadow of subsequent, more visible ones. A typical example is the discussion on who was the first to discover differential calculus – Newton or Leibnitz. It turns out that the unearthing of autostereograms also was a double discovery.

How Autostereograms Work

An autostereogram is a 2D image with a 3D illusion, which is familiar to many from ‘magic eye’ books for children. In order to see the 3D image, one needs to learn how to defocus their eyes, such as looking ‘through’ the image, thus converging their eye muscles.

The principle of autostereograms is based on the ‘wallpaper illusion’: if you keep looking at a wallpaper with repeating images, this repetition creates the sensation of the image’s depth. The illusion was described in the 19th century by David Brewster, a Scottish physicist and the inventor of the kaleidoscope.

Pete Stephens’ Autostereograms

Autostereograms were discovered only a century later, in 1968. Pete Stephens, a doctoral student in California, was studying another phenomenon in regards to visual perception – ‘afterimages’ – a persisting visual sensation of an object after one stops looking at it. Stephens used repeated images for his research and accidently revealed that these images can create a 3D effect.

On the basis of his discovery, Stephens created the first autostereograms entitled ‘Victoria’s Dream’ and ‘Tilted Seals’.

Lev Mogilev’s Autostereograms

At the same time, the history of science does not mention the earlier discovery of autostereograms: in 1963, five years before his Western colleague, Russian biologist Lev Mogilev published a paper called ‘The Capacity of Our Vision’ in the journal Angara in Irkutsk. It his paper, Mogilev described the principles of autostereograms and attached several images, which could create this effect.

Autostereograms were also described in Mogilev’s earlier works, but those papers were not illustrated, hence attracting even less attention.

3D Films and Autostereograms

There may be an explanation to the reason why Stephens and Mogilev made their discoveries around the same time in the 1960s. Back in the 1950s, the popularity of 3D films was at an all-time high, which piqued many people’s interest in perception of 3D images. So, this period was ideal for accumulating knowledge about the principles of how one’s system of vision work, which is the basis of 3D illusion.

Today’s 3D films are not based on autostereogram principles: to watch them, viewers still need glasses. It’s almost impossible to strain one’s eyes during an entire film. Meanwhile, 3D technologies that do not require additional equipment also exist: such as autostereoscopic displays.

IQ

Author: Anastasia Lobanova

April 29