Lessons From the VR Craze of The 1800s

Victorians went wild for stereoscopes—the virtual reality of the industrial revolution

Clive Thompson


“Antique Wood & Brass Stereoscope Viewer, Unknown Manufacturer” by Joe Haupt (CC 2.0 license, unmodified)

VR is one of those technologies that always seems just around the corner.

Recently we got a fresh round of chatter about it, when the-company-formerly-known-as-Facebook released its new Quest Pro headset. The quality on that headset is higher than ever, and Meta has poured $15 billion into its attempt to build a metaverse. But not a lot of people are using this new realm. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that only Meta had barely 200,000 monthly active users for Horizon World (its main metaverse offering) — many fewer than the 500,000 they predicted they’d have a year ago. Plus, “most visitors to Horizon generally don’t return to the app after the first month, and the user base has steadily declined since the spring”. Worse, “concurrency” — the number of active users logged in at the same time — isn’t great.

Or to put it another way, Meta has spent about … $75,000 per active monthly user. Yowsa.

Granted, maybe that user base will grow rapidly over the next few years. It doesn’t look that way, but with technology, I never say “never”. And since Mark Zuckerberg is heavily incentivized to pivot to VR — not least to distract from the festering civic mess he made with Facebook — he’ll likely keep throwing money at it.

But hey, if you wanted some real-life lessons in how to succeed with VR? If you wanted to figure out, hmmm, what do people truly want out of a virtual empry’ean?

You don’t need to gauzily envision the future, or imagine a what-if world. You could consult the records of history.

Specifically, you could look at the original VR craze: The Victoria-age obsession with stereoscopes, which lasted for fully 60 years.

The “stereoscope” was invented in 1838 by the British scientist Charles Wheatstone. He realized that if you took two photos of the same scene — each from slightly different angles — then viewed one in each eye, presto: It appeared as 3D.

A decade later, another scientist named David Brewster created the first portable stereoscope viewer. It was simple: A set of wooden goggles on a stick…



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net