1935 - The Pygmalion’s Spectacles, a story about a pair of glasses and a virtual world

Gabriel Picard - Oct 6, 2020 - 12 min read

First in a series of articles on the history of augmented reality, nothing like a little utopia, romance and immortality to start your journey through time. 

You are about to discover the very first story that introduces the concept of virtual reality. Most connoisseurs already know that augmented reality and virtual reality do not make you live the same experiences. However, both technologies share a common vision and in 1935 when Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote Pygmalion's Spectacles, he laid the fantastical foundations of this vision: a virtual world.

The Pygmalion’s Spectacles

The Pygmalion's Spectacles is a science fiction short story first published in Wonder Stories magazine in 1935.* This story is inspired by Greek mythology where Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with his creation, Galatea, a statue brought to life by Aphrodite, goddess of love.

In Stanley G. Weinbaum's story, Pygmalion is embodied by Professor Ludwig, inventor of a pair of glasses that allow you to experience a story in a realistic virtual environment. Galatea is a virtual woman, creation of the professor...

Stanley G. Weinbaum
Stanley G. Weinbaum

Is the philosopher Bishop Berkeley at the origin of Professor Ludwig's invention?

Let's get to know Professor Albert Ludwig a little better. In this story, Professor Ludwig meets Dan Burke who will be our hero. The two protagonists exchange about reality. Professor Ludwig argues that men drink to make dreams come true. "You drink to escape reality and the irony is that even reality is a dream".

Then, inevitably, we feel that the teacher has something to tell us... And he's based on the assumptions of a philosopher, Bishop Berkeley.

His real name George Berkeley (1685-1753) is an Irish philosopher who actually existed and who defended a theory called "Immaterialism" later renamed "Subjective Idealism". This theory refutes the existence of material substance and on the contrary maintains that the objects around us are only ideas in the mind of the observer. It therefore infers that objects do not exist as long as they are not perceived.

George Berkeley, par John Smibert, 1730
George Berkeley, par John Smibert, 1730

OK. We think after that we lost Dan Burke forever. On the contrary! He has completely sobered up and is asking the ultimate question:

"You can oppose reality to an illusion, it's easy. But if your friend Berkeley is right, why not take a dream and make it real? If it works one way, it should work the other way."

And of the teacher to answer his punchline that he had surely prepared well:

“All artists do it."

A story about a pair of glasses

Naturally, it was then that Professor Ludwig presented Dan Burke with his creation: a pair of "my magic spectacles". The glasses work like a projector because they are made to live a story, like a more real version of a movie at the cinema.

“[...]a movie that gives one sight and sound. Suppose now I add taste, smell, even touch, if your interest is taken by the story. Suppose I make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it.”

Reading this passage today is a real pleasure for me. This text dates back to 1935, when we can only speak of vision at that time. The technology of the time did not allow anyone to believe that it was possible to make such an invention. And this is also the strength of the literary genre that is science fiction.

So here's how it works:

“[...] First my liquid positive, then my magic spectacles. I photograph the story in a liquid with light-sensitive chromates. I build up a complex solution - do you see ? I add taste chemically and sound electrically. And when the story is recorded, then I put the solution in my spectacle - my movie projector. I electrolyze the solution, break it down; the older chromates go first, and out comes the story, sight, sound, taste - all!”

Well, for the moment it seems to be closer to chemistry than to technology, but why not, it can be tested, can't it?

And this is what it looks like:

“In his room Ludwig fumbled in a bag, producing a device vaguely reminiscent of a gas mask. There were goggles and a rubber mouthpiece[...]”

Okay, not sure I want to put that on my face... But we give him the benefit of the doubt. And for the fun of it, our creative team is ready to play and offers you an augmented reality representation of Professor Ludwig's Shows, try to get closer to the camera, it's pretty cool!

A virtual world story

As the teacher himself describes it, the Shows play a simple story, a utopia with two characters and of course Dan as a spectator. After putting on the glasses, Dan goes through a moment of chaos, the liquid dissipates, the first sounds are heard, the first smells, Dan is in front of a forest.

Pygmalion's Spectacles, encre sur papier, Virgil Finlay

Real paradise we discover Paracosma, Dan tries not to forget that it is an illusion however he begins to confuse dream and reality. He then meets a woman, Galatea.

As you can imagine, everything is already in Greek mythology...

Fun Fact - in 1935, Stanley G. Weinbaum had predicted the main defects of VR.

Before making Dan try out the Shows, Professor Ludwig was pretty wound up after a certain Westman company.

“Fools! I bring it here to sell to Westman, the camera people, and what do they say? ‘It isn’t clear, only one person can use it at a time. It’s too expensive.’ Fools! Fools!”

It is here that we see that Stanley G. Weinbaum had done his job well. He had also anticipated the problems that most users have with virtual reality as we know it today. The admission price is still too high, lack of sociability of an experience, limited visual quality... Nausea, which we find in this passage of the story, Dan has just removed the glasses.

““God!” he muttered. He felt shaken, sick, exhausted, with a bitter sense of bereavement, and his head ached fiercely.”

Did Pygmalion's Spectacles inspire Snapchat?

Snapchat, the famous social network specializing in augmented reality on cell phones, launched the third edition of its smart glasses in November 2019: the Shows. This pair of glasses allows users to film moments in their lives. Users can then increase their capture by integrating a multitude of visual effects, a feature dear to the concept of the mobile application.

Spectacles 3, by Snapchat

If Snapchat Shows do not offer a virtual reality experience, is their name inspired by Pygmalions Spectacles? We asked Jeff Miller - Creative Director at Snapchat, and we're still waiting for his answer! Mwahahahahahaha!

In the meantime, I wish you a good reading!
Télécharger Pygmalion’s Spectacles (PDF)

Gabriel Picard
Gabriel Picard
Creative Director, Cofounder
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