The Velvet Curtain

One summer day in 1982 in a giant harshly lit too air-conditioned hall Lhary Meyer and I stood in front of a dark blue velvet curtain adorned with a large sign reading StereoGraphics Corp.  We stood behind a similar dark blue velvet cloth draped over a tabletop covered with our demonstration gear featuring a 19-inch CRT monitor that was big and murderously heavy to pack and unpack and to schlep especially in its godzillan case. We had the smallest booth money could buy and no seniority so we got stranded in a corner away from the main Siggraph action. We didn’t know it but we were showing flickerless 3-D images and the antecedent of CrystalEyes, the foundations of the electronic stereoscopic industry.  We were demonstrating tethered visors with electro-optical shutters through which one could see a stereoscopic image on that big monitor with a small screen.  Getting decent quality demo images was not easy because we did not have customers so we had to scrounge for stereopairs from contacts all over the country; we had stereoscopic weather maps and a random assortment of still images.

Lhary, our vice president of technology, was the first employee of StereoGraphics; there were only five or six of us then. Lhary (his spelling) was a good electronics designer who was self-taught without having gone to college.  He had been the youngest engineer to work at the ABC radio network responsible for the cross country feed. Lhary had a calm disposition and sonorous voice and he wore thick tortoiseshell glasses; although I do not think Lhary and I looked alike people would often mistake us for brothers.  The glasses and the beards were enough; just a couple of hippie anarchists spreading the gospel of 3-D.

We were alone in the hall; that is to say there were no other stereoscopic displays. Lhary and I waited for people to stop by and tell us what they thought of our wares.  Not all of them were polite; a number of people would say things like 3-D! ha! ha! pretty good for pornography or maybe you should have a giant gorilla sticking its hand out of the screen.

No matter what kind of crap was on display in the hall I cannot believe that it was greeted with outright disdain, disbelief, incredulity, and hostility; those reactions went on for years.  But after Silicon Graphics and Evans and Sutherland adopted our products we eventually had a large booth and because of the years of standing behind little tabletops we had seniority so our booth was adjacent to the likes of Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems. The mockery ceased. At one time I counted 40 booths in the hall at Siggraph featuring our products.

We looked like one of the big player, and in fact we had enabled a significant industry whose revenue could be reckoned at a few hundred million but we were only a $5 million company.  That was because many people were selling hardware and software-based on our products but we were considered to be a computer peripheral and we could not figure out how to properly monetize the value of our technology.

Lhary died a few years later but he did live long enough to see us gain acceptance.  I did scores of tradeshows after Lhary was gone but persistent into the beyond he stood next to me and calmly answered questions. Now the technology we developed is in use not only for cinemas but also in the home.  A couple of years ago I thought acceptance had come.  The stereoscopic medium was saving the film industry!  There were going to be 3-D TVs in every home! But now I am having bummer flashbacks behind the velvet (probably velour) tabletop once again flinching because of the barrage of articles in the press decrying the stereoscopic medium. It’s a seemingly unending stream of complaints about 3-D movies and television. The movies are dark, conversion is no good, the movies aren’t making money, 3-D TV is DOA because of the need for glasses and no content.

Today when I read what the skeptics have to say, so outspoken in their loathing of the technology, I have visions of the brothers Lhary and Lenny, standing in front of the velvet curtain, taking it on the chin for 3-D.

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