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nrc pic

We finally got our paper about the synopter accepted @ Journal of Art and Perception. Until it gets actually published, a preprint can be downloaded here. Below I’ve written some background info that should hopefully be understandable for most of you.

What is a synopter?

An optical device that creates a similar perspective for both eyes by using full and semi transparent mirrors:


What can you do with a synopter?

You can look through it. We are especially interested in looking a paintings. Therefore we sometimes call it the Art Viewer:

Synopter @Stedelijk
Synopter @Stedelijk
Synopter @Kröller-Müller
Synopter @Kröller-Müller
Synopter @Stedelijk
Synopter @Stedelijk

 Ok, what will I see?

You will see something that resembles a 3D picture. I once needed to visualise this, and took this still life of Melendez:

I cut out all objects, put them in a 3D environment and used motion parallax to create a sense of depth:


 So when I view a painting through the synopter it starts moving?

No, sorry for the misunderstanding, the motion is used to visualise the effect: an enhanced perception of three dimensionality.

Don’t you need two images take from a slightly different viewpoint to create a 3D effect?

Indeed, when you watch a conventional 3D movie or photo, they are often recorded using two lenses that are approximately  separated by the average eye distance (6.5 cm). You’ll get two slightly different viewpoints, similar to real life. Here is an old Japanese stereo picture:

You cannot really see 3D here, but a very cool blogger created animated gifs, and the depth becomes immediately clear:

The differences between the two images are called ‘disparities’, and your brain uses them to extract depth information.

So the synopter creates two images?

No, it actually does the opposite. When you normally view an painting, the ‘disparity’ information will tell you that the thing you are looking at is flat. After all, a painting is physically flat. However, what is depicted in the painting often has depth. Therefore, your brain is experiencing a conflict: it is looking at something that is both flat and deep. The synopter is designed such that your eyes do not experience any disparities anymore. Therefore, the conflict vanishes.

Isn’t closing one eye a little bit simpler?

Sure! In fact, da Vinci and many others already pointed out the advantage of monocular (that is the word or looking with one eye) viewing. However, it appears that the 3D effect is much less than by looking through the synopter. It seems that your brain knows that your eyes are open, and therefore expects disparities that are in line with the depth created by the painter. It wouldn’t be the first time that the brain adds something to your visual experience that is not really there!

Cool, I want one!

That is not impossible. But please temper your expectations.  For some people it does not work at all. We haven’t found what determines these individual differences. On the other hand, it is not unrealistic that you are part of the lucky ones (a little more than half of the people we tested it with).

Great, where can I buy it?

We are working on a purchasable product. In the mean time, we are offering the laser cut schemes for the prototype we used in the experiments online. And here is a stop-motion movie I made for the construction:

Instructions to construct a synopter from Maarten Wijntjes on Vimeo.

Visual communication of stuff and things