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Before Amazon’s New Phone: 9 Other Landmarks in 3-D Technology

Photo: J. R. Eyerman/Time Life Pictures

Today, Amazon announced its first-ever smartphone. The phone’s killer feature, as was widely rumored before the event, will be a 3-D display enabled by four front-facing infrared cameras that can detect a user’s head movements and rearrange screen elements accordingly. The four-camera setup will produce the illusion of depth even in low light, and will give mapping apps and games an extra layer of realism.

Various smartphone makers have already tried the 3-D trick – Wikipedia has an entire list of 3-D phones — but none have caught on. Perhaps that’s because 3-D imaging is the ultimate technologist fantasy — a futuristic gimmick that often almost works, but rarely makes it to the mainstream. Here are nine previous tech trips into the third dimension.

Photo: Wikimedia

1. Stereoscope
The technology underlying the Amazon phone was invented in 1838 by Sir Charles Wheatstone, who also invented an accordionlike musical instrument called the concertina. The stereoscope was Wheatstone’s biggest invention, though. It used two mirrors angled at 45 degrees to show pictures to its users, which created the illusion of depth and led to the popularization of 3-D images.

Photo: Science & Society Picture Library/Getty Images

2. Megalethoscope
Invented in the 1860s by an Italian photographer named Carlo Ponti, the megalethoscope — in addition to being a mouthful — was an advancement on an earlier Ponti invention, the alethoscope. Both the megalethoscope and the alethoscope used a backlight, which allowed photographers to simulate 3-D by using specially treated photographs to create a weird (and cool-looking) depth effect. Early megalethoscopes are still pretty valuable: In 2005, an Antiques Roadshow appraiser valued an original Ponti model at between $4,000 and $6,000.

Photo: Wikimedia

3. Kaiserpanorama
The brainchild of 19th-century German inventor August Fuhrmann, the Kaiserpanorama was a version of an ancient filmlike technology called the zoetrope. (You know them as the circular things with slits that create the illusion of moving objects when spun.) The Kaiserpanorama was a massive zoetrope, essentially. Up to 25 people could stand at viewing stations around the device and look inside with viewing lenses. The images inside would be backlit and spun quickly, creating the illusion of a third dimension.

Photo: Fujifilm

4. 3-D Cameras
In the 1950s, 3-D technology made its way to the masses in the form of stereoscopic movies, which required the disposable glasses we all know today to be viewed properly. These movies were among the most popular of the period, and some people predicted that 3-D cameras would soon be everywhere. In the ensuing decades, various attempts were made to commercialize 3-D imaging with camcorders and still cameras (the Fujifilm FinePix Real 3D W, above, is one of the most recent versions). But, despite the 1950s enthusiasm for the technology, none of these products ever truly took off. Sales of the Fujifilm model numbered about 100,000 in 2010 — not nothing, but not the revolution a 1950s moviegoer might have expected.

Photo: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

5. 3-D Glasses
After the 3-D success of the 1950s, various electronics makers tried to personalize the experience by creating 3-D glasses. None of these was commercially successful (although the CrystalEyes shutter glasses, seen above on NBA legend Magic Johnson, did produce some amazing publicity photos).

Photo: Marty Katz/Time Life Pictures

6. 3-D Games
Before the computing power for 3-D games was widely available, companies like Nintendo tried to ride the 3-D wave by introducing video-game systems that simulated the effects. The Virtual Boy, released in 1995, used a stereoscopic headset to produce red-only 3-D images. It was popular in the Roose house (I bought one with my snow-shoveling money), but barely anywhere else, and it was discontinued in 1996.

Photo: N.E. Thing Enterprises

7. Magic Eye books
The bane of my childhood (I could never get the 3-D effect to work), the Magic Eye books were nevertheless an international sensation, selling more than 20 million copies. The books, invented by 3-D artist Cheri Smith, used offset patterns generated by 3-D modeling software to create the illusion of depth when viewed properly. (Hold the book up to your nose, then slowly move it away until the two squares above the puzzle merge.) The craze swept the nation in the 1990s, and the books are still around today.

Photo: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

8. 3-D TVs
In 2010, it appeared that 3-D would be the next thing in television. Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, and other major TV manufacturers all rolled out 3-D models — meant to be watched with special polarized glasses — and networks got ready to broadcast in three dimensions instead of two. IGN declared it the “year of the 3-D TV.” But 3-D TVs never caught on, in part because consumers weren’t willing to put on goofy goggles to watch their evening SportsCenter. Manufacturers discontinued their sets, ESPN and other channels dropped the technology, and these days, 3-D is more of an industry sore spot than anything else. “We’ve stopped talking about them,” one industry expert told Variety before this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.

Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

9. Home holograms
After Tupac appeared via hologram at Coachella 2012 (it wasn’t actually a hologram, but whatever), tech blogs speculated about when holographic technology would be available to the masses. That hasn’t happened just yet, but industry insiders remain hopeful. (“Someday it’ll come,” one hologram start-up’s CTO told Mashable last year.) But as of today, the technology for real, personal holograms doesn’t yet exist. “Right now, technology is not quite ready to handle the implications of a truly full-scale holographic experience,” Mashable writes, “but we are closer than we ever have been before.”

All of which is to say that Amazon will be staging an uphill battle to convince customers of 3-D’s merits. Most of the 3-D gadgets throughout history have struggled to catch on among the masses. When 3-D has been a commercial success, it’s been in movies and Magic Eye books – not the devices we use every day. But if anyone can force mass adoption of a fringe technology, it’s Amazon. Some folks in Seattle will be hoping the third dimension proves more appealing this time around.

9 Other Landmarks in 3-D Technology