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Old school virtual reality. What could your students do with this?

Most of you know that I’m a sucker for anything VR. I love Google Cardboard and Expeditions. The NYTVR app is an incredible tool for creating emotion and empathy with our kids. And who doesn’t enjoy Youtube channels like Virtually There?

So it shouldn’t be a big surprise that I also can’t get enough of the old timey stereographs and stereoscopes. You know . . . old school VR. Virtual reality before the Googles.

Before Cardboard, there were ViewMasters. And before ViewMasters, there were stereoviews and stereoscopes. The process was basically the same – two photographs of the same scene were taken from two slightly different perspectives and then mounted side by side on a card. The photos would appear three-dimensional when used with the stereoscope viewing device.

And the effect on people was the same then as it is today when your kids are using Google Street View to hike around the Pyramids.

In 1859, Oliver Wendell Holmes described the impact:

The first effect of looking at a good photograph through the stereoscope is a surprise such as no painting ever produced. The mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture.

A article in the October Smithsonian magazine compares the current VR craze to the one that started in the mid 1800s. And it’s interesting to note the similarities. It also got me thinking – can we as history teachers use these older images as part of the historical thinking process? I’m not entirely sure what it might look like but it seems like the 150 year old stereoview images can serve as another form of primary source. Evidence that our kids can use to understand past events and people.

So I started poking around a bit and discovered that there are a lot of these images lying about the Internet.

I started with the Library of Congress and found a ton of stuff available in digital formats. They have a nice article that highlights the process as well as links to a few collections. But if you’re serious about using stereographs as part of your instructional design, you’ll need to hang out a bit in their Stereograph Card collection.

The collection has over 8,000 stereographs available online, representing roughly 15 percent of the 52,000 stereographs produced from the 1850s to the 1940s, with the bulk of the collection dating between 1870 and 1920. The online images feature cities and towns around the world, expeditions and expositions, industries, disasters, and portraits of Native Americans, presidents, and celebrities.

You can also use their general search and get a ton of great stereographs by just searching for “stereograph cards.”

But there are other online collections that merit a glance:







I got stuck in the West and Civil War cause . . . well, I like the period. But I’m sure a deeper search would dig up images from other parts of the world.

The cool thing is that you and your kids can still get cheap viewers that could be used to view these in 3D. And, wait for it . . . there are some apps available that allow the use of Google cardboard for this:

It is also possible to view stereographs in a way more true to their intended use with an Apple or Android smartphone. In 2013, Google introduced their Cardboard project that creates a standardized virtual reality viewer composed of lenses and folded cardboard with a smartphone serving as the screen. In conjunction with an Android app like “Stereogram for Cardboard 2.0,” which uses the NYPL stereograph collection by default but also supports user stereographs, Google Cardboard provides an inexpensive and simple way to view stereographs in their original format.

So you can get old and new school.

Maybe start with some sort of hook activity like this mystery card activity at the Library of Congress. Have kids try and figure out where a stereograph was taken.

Maybe use them as writing prompts. Ask them to predict the next few stereographs in the series. Or have kids think about what makes a good stereograph? Why were they so popular? Have them compare and contrast old and current VR images from the same places. Or with the same types of people. Who, what, and where would stereographs (i.e. Google Street Views) be taken in 2017?

Could we have kids use typical analysis worksheet questions with these? Does Wineburg’s source, context, corroborate, close read process work with these types of evidence? I think so but I’m curious what you’re thinking.

What could your students do with this?


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