Oh, the sweet memories. If you are in your thirties or older, you’d know what this is about for sure. The little device that somewhat seemed like a pair of binoculars or a portable microscope that connected both adults and kids like no other. Yes, I am talking about that strange little device, the ‘View-Master’.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, there wasn’t a single home that didn’t have one of these devices. Marketed as the ‘View-Master’, which is the trademark name of a line of special-format stereoscopes and corresponding View-Master “reels”. The reels were tiny stereoscopic 3-D pairs of small transparent colour photographs on film.
I know it may not seem exciting and much you might even ask what the fuss is about, sure, it’s nothing more than a few pictures. Well, true but the viewing experience at that time was of a device that was of a steampunk era. Some would even classify the View-Master as the blueprint of the AR console.
Introduced in 1939 by Sawyer’s, a slide projector and scenic slides company, the View-Master was sold with its trademarked reels, which were thin cardboard disks containing seven stereoscopic 3-D pairs of small transparent color photographs on film.
The reels typically contained images of scenic views, popular global tourist sites and renowned locations. These ‘reels’ gave the user the illusion of actually ‘being present at the scene’, which at the time was unheard of.
Much like the steampunk nature of the product, the people who built it, Ed Mayer and the staff of the Sawyer company initially had absolutely no idea what to call the device when it was initially manufactured.
It was so big that eventually, the View-Master came to be recognized by 65 percent of the world’s population. One of its biggest achievement in the early 1940s was selling 100,000 viewers and nearly six million reels from 1942 till the end of the second world was in 1945 to the American military for personal training.
In 1952 the View-Master personal line came in to play, the personal line, which took inspiration from the View-Master Personal Stereo Camera gave the users the ability to make their own reels. Despite the product being initially successful the View-Master personal line was discontinued after just 10 years in the market subsequently giving birth to the Model D viewer, View-Master’s highest-quality viewer, which was available until the early 1970s, and the Stereomatic 500, View-Master’s only 3D projector.
The Model E was introduced in 1955 with a more modern design, big ivory buttons on the picture changer levers, and a large “V” slot on top for easier reel insertion. It was released in brown and black in the United States and some other colors elsewhere. It was about 4 inches high, 5 inches wide, and 4 inches deep.
The Model F, which was introduced in 1958 used up C-Cell batteries to power its internal lighting source. This was successful design by Charles Harrison was later honoured at the ‘Cooper-Hewitt Lifetime Achievement Award’ in 2008.
In 1962, the Bakelite models were replaced with lighter plastic versions, the first of which was the Model G. This bold change came through directly from its new president Bob Brost. The View-Master had been constructed originally from Kodak Tenite plastic and then Bakelite, a hard, sturdy, somewhat heavy plastic. The lightweight thermoplastic became the material of choice under Brost.
General Aniline & Film (GAF) Corporation acquired Sawyer’s in 1966. The View-Master under its new parent become more child friendly, mainly targeting the younger generation by featuring cartoon reels and toys framed devices.
“Taking View-Master”, which was included audio technology was implemented from 1970 to 1997. With reels having three major designs with increasing sophistication since the inception of the product.
In 1980, View-Master released the Show Beam Projector, a toy that combined the company’s stereoscopic images and flashlight technology to produce a portable hand-held projector. The Show Beam used small film cartridges that were plugged into the side of the toy. Each cartridge contained 30 full-color 2D images.
In 1984 VMI acquired the Ideal Toy Company and subsequently was renamed as View-Master Ideal Group, which then was sold to Tyco Toys in 1989
Tyco, including the View-Master Ideal Group, merged with Mattel Inc. in 1997. V-M was placed organizationally in Mattel’s pre-school division and is now marketed under the Fisher-Price imprint, who continues the emphasis on juvenile content.
The Fisher-Price division of toymaker Mattel announced that they would cease production of the View-Master’s reels depicting tourist attractions as of December 2008 but would continue to produce animated characters till 2009. Alpha-cine announced it would take up scenic reel production under an agreement with Fisher-Price.
2015–present: Virtual reality
In 2015, Mattel entered into an agreement with Google to produce the View-Master Virtual Reality Viewer, the start of a line of virtual reality devices, which required smartphones. An implementation of the Google Cardboard VR platform the View-Master Virtual Reality Viewer was built using its SDK. The content displayed directly on the screen as opposed to using reels was a novel step in the product’s evolution. The device currently is in production; however, the original sheen and experience may have been dampened to an extent. Irrespective of the View-Master’s fate it continues to remain as one of the few devices to merge both centuries together bringing joy, laughter and nostalgic memories.
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