Brian May with his new OWL viewer – housing a smartphone displaying stereo images he took of APs news editor Chris Cheesman

[© C Cheesman]

The Queen guitarist is in the throes of a 15-date European tour, and between gigs has flown back especially for the London launch of his OWL VR Smartphone Kit. He has just stepped off stage in Barcelona, Spain, and jets off to Linz, Austria, first thing in the morning.

He may be weary from the travelling, but May’s passion for what Victorians called stereoscopy – ‘virtual reality’, in 21st century jargon – remains undimmed.

This lifelong expert and fan of the third dimension began collecting stereo cards given away free with packets of Weetabix cereal as a boy. He now has 100,000 of the things.

Ever keen to expound on all things 3D, interviews with journalists to promote his new stereo-viewing device are running behind – so late, in fact, that his PR entourage are told to vacate the screening room set aside for ‘one-on-one’ interviews. Their time is up.

Amateur Photographer’s scheduled interview time came and went an hour ago and it appears we have been defeated by the cleaners. Are we about to be shown the door? After all, May has been talking 3D for more than four hours and does have a plane to catch.

We needn’t have worried. An upstairs meeting room comes to the rescue and, installed safely inside, May is relaxed and clearly relieved as he takes a seat and hears this is his last interview of the day.

‘Hooray,’ he cries as if he’s just come off stage on the final date of a tour after a long night of encores.

How do you find time for all this 3D stuff – is it your way of switching off?

‘I don’t know what it is. I seem to be kind of driven. And I’m so fortunate that I get to do all the things that I dreamed of doing when I was a kid – stereoscopy, being a rock star, playing music, helping to give animals a voice, which I always dreamed of, and astronomy.

‘Maybe, I’m slightly nuts…’

He’s certainly as nuts as ever about 3D. ‘It’s the reality [of it]. It’s the absolute magic of feeling that you’re there in some place you couldn’t possibly be.

‘It’s like a time machine. You can find yourself back in a situation that you were in that you can recreate, or you could be creating a situation like you are in the international space station, or you could be diving with sharks.

‘And the more real you can make it, the more wonderful it is. It’s just enchanting.’

3D TV – what happened?

When we last spoke, in 2011, 3D was being touted to a potentially whole new global audience, through 3D TV. At the time, May admitted that the format was ‘perched on the brink’.

But 3D TV has failed to win over the masses, perhaps down to the need to wear those wretched 3D glasses. ‘I think it’s fairly well proven that people don’t like to sit riveted to one spot to watch their TV,’ May reflects. ‘They like to be watching their TV while they are cooking or putting their kids to bed or whatever they do.

‘So, no I don’t think TV has worked out at all.’

The movie industry’s flirtation with 3D has formed a more solid bond, although he reckons this may have peaked.

‘Film’s worked out pretty good, but I think there’s a slight backlash from the fact that a lot of the 3D films now are conversions, and the conversions are never perfect,’ May explains.

‘And sometimes people overdo it. Sometimes they underdo it and people get slightly jaded from it.’

Either way, he believes his new £25 viewing gadget stands a better chance of surviving the vagaries of the 3D phenomenon.

The collapsible device is a 21st century twist on one that Victorian enthusiasts first used to view stereo cards.

He sees 3D as now having gone full circle, returning to the days when Victorians first saw magic created before their eyes – a concept that gripped the world in the 1850s.

In May’s eyes, there is little difference between ‘stereoscopy’ in the 1850s, ‘3D’ in the 1950s and ‘VR’ in the 21st century. ‘The 360° [VR] thing is great, but basically you are looking at a stereoscope,’ he says.

Google joined the VR bandwagon in June 2014, and reportedly shipped more than five million of its low-cost fold-out cardboard viewers in the first 19 months. Like May’s new device – Google Cardboard allows the user to view smartphone images in 3D.

OWL VR KIT-01.webThe new £25 OWL VR Smartphone Kit, due out next month


Journalists try out the device’s virtual reality potential at the Dolby offices in London [© Andy Westlake]

The musician-turned-inventor hopes to tap into a technology that has ‘taken the consumer electronics industry by storm’, as availability of VR content grows.

Schools plan

May predicts that the idea of taking the viewer into another world, through an ‘intimate experience’, is likely to take hold again, pointing out that stereo views ended up in every school around 1900.

Introducing the OWL to schools, through his London Stereoscopic Company, may be one way of boosting its mass appeal – and he plans to do just that.

‘I get great a response from kids with these things,’ he explains. ‘They all love ’em. And they love it even more when they realise they can take pictures of themselves and their mates in stereo and immediately see them.

‘It doesn’t look like education if you show them what it’s like to live in the Pyrenees or something.

‘You can just put them in a virtual reality place where they find out what it’s like to be an Eskimo. I think there are great possibilities… I’m talking quite young kids. Some of my grandchildren really enjoy this.’