StereoJet Prints: Brave New Future Already Past?
by Jim Gasperini
from OCC Panoram June 2003

Imagine a technology that allowed vivid color stereo images to be hung on the wall like any conventional photograph. The stereo effect would be accessible with a minimum of fuss and bother--a set of polarizing glasses, perhaps, but no special projectors or darkened ambient light conditions. The images would be reasonably attractive when not viewed in stereo, andlast for many years. Ah, if only...

But wait: the StereoJet print, developed several years ago by the Rowland Institute for Science in Cambridge, MA and briefly commercialized on an experimental basis starting in 2001, is just such a technology. Backlit by a light box (all the rage in the art world), StereoJet transparencies look reasonably attractive (though in vague soft focus) when viewed with the naked eye. When viewed through the same polarized glasses we use to see projected slides, however, they take on all the vivid power and uncanny sense of presence of projected stereo. Because they are concentrated in a smaller area and backlit, they can be viewed in normal conditions. Recent tests indicate that if properly exhbited they can last without noticeable problems for at least 35 years and likely much more. Photographers who have made StereoJets for exhibition include Boris Starosta, John Toeppen, and Lynn Butler.

StereoJet print of
Air, Earth, Water, Fire, and Sarah
mounted on a P-Frame flat light box
and hung on a wall

So why arenít StereoJet prints hanging on the walls of every stereo photographer in the country? Whatís the catch? Alas, catches abound. More about those later, but first a brief history and explanation of how these images are put together.

Brief History

The earliest precursors of the StereoJet were experiments based on modifications to a technology known as Vectograph, invented by Edwin Land and colleagues at Polaroid in the 1950ís. "Dye imbibition" was used to reproduce image pairs on matching sheets of transparent plastic using dichroic inks (from the Greek for "two colors," i.e. inks that show different colors when viewed from different angles). Lined up carefully and attached to a third, polarizing sheet, then backlit and viewed with polarizing glasses, the experimental images showed great promise.

The process used to imbue images proved prohibitively cumbersome, however, and the scientists eventually put the technology aside.

Fast forward to the early 1990ís. Jay Scarpetti, a member of the original team and now a senior scientist at Rowland, an R&D lab set up by Polaroid, notices the advent of inkjet printers and reasons that here, finally, is an inexpensive way to print the dichroic inks onto the Vectograph substrate. He sets up a Stereo Imaging Group to perfect the process. By 2001, after various tests and improvements, the technology, renamed StereoJet to allude to the role played by souped-up Epson inkjets, is ready for a test in the real world. San Francisco Imaging Services (SFIS) of North Beach signs on as commercial licensee. Several photographers are also licensed to make images, including Ron Labbe, David Burder and Peter Sinclair.

This diagram is courtesy of Boris Starosta. Thanks, Boris.

An Orphan in the Storm

Various factors seemed to combine against the StereoJet. During its brief period of commercial availability, it remained in a prototype phase, and the cost of the media and labor involved kept prints on the expensive side. Polaroid went bankrupt, and the orphaned Rowland Institute migrated to Harvard University. 3M took over Polaroidís unique machine for making the special Vectograph substrate, and jacked up the price. Though the various parties involved did their best, they never managed to find the "killer app" that would bring volumes up to a point where economies of scale could apply. Harvard is supposedly looking for a suitable "master licensee" to commercialize the technology, and though there are rumors of various Canadian suitors it is quite possible that the dwindling supplies of StereoJet media are all that will ever be made (see a white paper by Scarpetti and others at http://www.rowland.harvard.edu/stereo/

Though SFIS continues to offer StereoJet printing, they have run out of high quality media and can only offer "hit or miss" prints using leftovers. One side is usually slightly softer than the other, and sometimes artifacts appear. Itís impossible to tell in advance what problems a given sheet will have, and unless the results are truly awful the risk is the buyerís. As with any form of printing it can take several tries before you get exactly what you want, and at $130 a pop for an 8x10, StereoJet is not for everyone. SFIS experts will advise you on what to avoid: shots with areas of strong contrast right next to each other tend to produce ghosts, for example, but this can sometimes be mitigated with the deft use of the dodge tool in Photoshop. Images with the main subject in the middle ground work best, and itís best to line these elements up directly on top of each other and crop accordingly (the "time for space wiggle" animated gif method of displaying an image on a computer can be used as a test.)

Limited Editions, ipso facto

American Ink Jet Company of Billerica, MA recently tested for longevity the dichroic inks they produced for StereoJet. When exposed continuously for 35 years or so, the magenta ink will start to fade (the cyan, yellow and black inks will last much longer). Jay Scarpetti thinks that intermittently exhibited works, or ones exhibited without fluorescent light (which tends to the green and thus affects magenta ink) could last much longer. Natural light from the north is ideal. Experimental images made at Polaroid in the 1950ís and displayed continuously ever since are still sharp and colorfast.

Since digital techniques began being used for fine art, various artificial devices have been used to create "limited editions" despite the natural tendency of digital media to be infinitely reproducible. If it does turn out that the dwindling supplies of StereoJet substrate are the last ever produced, all images printed on it will become "limited editions," like it or not. An odd sort of silver lining to find in the otherwise sad story of a promising technology, but stereo photographers are used to taking whatever we can get.



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