As an avid collector of old 3D gear and photos from the 1800’s, I recently came across a Brewster Stereoscope made in France.


Proving unequivocally the adage “what’s old is new”, here is the antique stereoscope alongside its modern VR cousin.

The old stereoscope has inter-ocular distance adjustment, focus adjustment, and was hand made by French craftsmen out of mahogany. There’s not a modern VR headset that can claim that.

Modern VR headsets work by sliding your phone into the device, to use as a screen. The old ones work by sliding a 3D photo in… to make a screen. The principle in both cases is exactly the same.

I thought it would be cool to retrofit the old Brewster stereoscope, to fit an Iphone, and see how well it works… with old and new VR content.

Retrofitting an old fashioned stereoscope for VR

My first step was to test the iPhone in the Brewster stereoscope for size.

Fitting an iPhone in an old Brewster Stereoscope

Fits… great.

I put some protection on the iPhone and covered the camera lens…

Protecting an iPhone from Polymorph

I boiled up some Polymorph (liquid nylon) on the stove

Boiling polymorph

Throwing caution to the wind, I took the super hot (molten) polymorph, about 175 degrees Faranheit, and rolled it into the back of the Stereoscope (burying my iPhone in hot gooey plastic), and closed the glass lid.

I then put it in the freezer for 30 minutes.

When it came out it looked like this…

Make your own iPhone tray for VR

What this image doesn’t show is the difficulty I had in getting the glass lid open. The nylon had stuck to the glass somewhat, and it required a sharp knife slid underneath it, to slowly work the glass door free.

If I was doing this again…  I’d use some kind of spray soapy water perhaps, to stop the plastic from attaching to everything.

The next challenge was getting the moulded tray out of the Stereoscope, which was tricky, and also had to be worked loose with a knife and screwdriver to ‘crack’ the seal.

Luckily it cracked cleanly, here’s the tray and phone out of the Stereoscope…

iPhone tray for Stereoscope

As you can see it pulled off some of the black paint from inside the Stereoscope and there was a moment of worry as I checked whether my iPhone was still working (it was).

I’d kept the iPhone in its standard Apple leather case prior to ‘moulding’, mainly for protection, and this meant I could work it loose with a knife without damaging the phone.

One benefit of keeping the phone in its case was the extra bit of ‘width’, making the resulting tray size perfect. With just some minor adjustments with sandpaper and a knife, I was snapping the iPhone in and out like a regular case.

Finally I fired up a 3D test video I’d made in Stereoview format (like Side-by-Side 3D video, but not squished), added a circular mask, and tried it out…

Steampunk VR

It works brilliantly!

In the image above you can see one half of a 3D Stereoview photo from the late 1800’s. The 3D effect through the antique glasses is crisp, full of detail, and like going back in time.

Unlike a regular mobile VR headset, using a modified Brewster stereoscope means the image is around double the distance from the eyes (a reduced field of view), and not nearly as magnified by the lenses. This makes the resolution much sharper than VR.

It’s probably not the most practical thing in the world, but it was great fun to make (my son and I did it together), and there’s something really cool about viewing ancient 3D photos in their original stereoscope viewer, but with an iPhone as the screen. Trying out modern VR with an old viewer is fun too!

Example 3D video formatted for a modern VR headset

Here’s the video I used for the tests and a hi-res download link for highest quality.

One Comment on “Steampunk VR – Making an antique VR headset

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Receive future blog updates by email