The Digital Stereogram

Library of Congress

I just discovered the New York Public Library’s Labs initiative, an “experimental design and technology unit creating interactive experiences around research library collections and data.” They have some SERIOUSLY COOL tools available on their website, and many of them ask the public to contribute to the content.

I was immediately taken by the “Stereogranimator,” a website where you can create 3D GIFs out of old stereogram images. The first time I ever encountered an old-fashioned stereoscope (aside from the classic View-Master, of course) was my grandfather’s collection, which, if I recall correctly, included some photos of belly dancers in the vein of “Little Egypt,” the famous gal from the 1893 Chicago world’s fair. At the time, I thought they were pret-ty scandalous, let me tell you.

Stereograms work because each image is just slightly off from the other, so when you view them next to each other through a set of binoculars, your brain stitches them together and creates a 3D image for your viewing pleasure. It’s basically applying the same cues your eyes and brain use every day to perceive depth in three-dimensional space to a pair of closely matched two-dimensional photos. I admit that I have trouble seeing them, but when it works, it’s super awesome.

For my first stereogranimation, I decided to use an image from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. I’m nothing if not consistent in my interests, let me tell you. I think this image is fabulous — bustling and exciting and in color! — and seeing it in almost-3D, right there on my computer screen, is pretty fantastic.

The St. Louis World’s Fair was apparently a big moment for stereograph images. The one up top is of the “biggest wheel on Earth (240 m.) with the heaviest axle ever forged (56 tons)” from the fair. And this one here has quite the poetic caption:

Library of Congress

“As if chalked with fire against the lucky sky.”

Happy birthday, New York World’s Fair!

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Today marks the 49th anniversary of the opening of the inaugural season of New York’s most recent World’s Fair, which ran for two seasons in 1964 and 1965. The fairgrounds also hosted the 1939-40 World’s Fair, and were earlier an ash dumping ground mentioned in The Great Gatsby.

The former fairgrounds (and the remnants they contain) remain one of my favorite places in the city, and the fair continues to fascinate me and capture my imagination. Soon I hope to get out to the ‘grounds and do a Now and Then comparison post, but for now, I’d like to recommend this promotional piece from Disney about their involvement in the fair (“It’s a Small World” was originally created for the Pepsi/UNICEF pavilion at the fair… and now you’ve probably got the song in your head. Sorry about that.), and this disappointingly watermarked footage from the fair.

If you like looking at old photos from theme parks and fairs, I’d also recommend Gorillas Don’t Blog, my go-to spot for a daily fix of such things.