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Black History Month: Valerie Thomas, Developer of a 3-D Imaging Display That Was Decades Ahead Of Its Time

by Felix Omondi

Black History Month: Valerie Thomas, Developer of a 3-D Imaging Display That Was Decades Ahead Of Its Time
Valerie Thomas – The African-American Woman Who Developed A 3-D Imaging Display That Was Decades Ahead Of Its TimeAt the beginning of the 21st Century, viewers were spoiled to the use of 3-D glasses at the movie theatres which enabled viewers to enhance their viewing experience with 3-D videos. A few years after the turn of the 21st Century, TV technology went a notch higher by being able to show 3-D imaging without the use of 3-D glasses. While all this innovations have been highly appreciated by viewers worldwide, but the basic ideology behind all this inventions can be traced back to the year 1976 when Valerie Thomas while working on a NASA project invented how to make concave mirrors create an illusion of 3-dimensional objects.

Valerie Thomas’s first interest in science first showed at the age of 8 when she read The Boys First Book on Electronics. But fate will not have her build-on her interest on electronics, as she joined an all-girls school. At that time there was an implicit stereotype that girls were not meant to be interested in anything to do with technology and electronics. So she got absolutely no education on math and sciences which forced her to learn these subjects by herself. After high school she enrolled to the Morgan State University where she impressed many with her exceedingly well results.

She graduated with a degree in Physics (only two women in her class achieved these feet). After which she joined National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) where she served as a data analyst. After working with NASA for quite some time and building a positive reputation, she was selected to head the “Landsat Project”: a project that entails image processing system that would later on enable satellites to send images directly from space. It was during a scientific seminar, she attended back in 1976 that was exhibiting illusion shows that the idea of employing concave mirror to exhibit 3-D images.

At the exhibit, they used mirrors to fool the audience into believing that they made a light bulb glow after it was unscrewed from the power socket. This exhibit intrigued Thomas, and she started thinking of the commercial applications for creating illusions in the same manner. In the year 1977, Thomas started to experiment of concave and flat mirrors; flat mirrors gives a reflection of an object with the image appearing behind the glass surface, while a concave mirror gives a reflection which appears in front of the glass. Thomas’s intentions were to make the illusion of the image reflected by concave mirrors to appear in 3-Dimension manner.

She believed that images which are represented in this manner will provide a more accurate and interesting way of showing video data. She strongly believed that this process would be a big breakthrough especially for the commercial TV industry. She also sold the idea to NASA as the best scientific tool for satellite image delivery. She applied for a patent for this invention on the 28th December 1978 but it was issued on the 21st October 1980. Thomas’s invention works in the similar way as a holographic production for image recording that uses coherent radiations by employing the use of front wave reconstruction methods which actually makes the whole process not sustainable on a wide-scale commercial basis since it is not only expensive but also quite has a complicated setup process.

The best alternative to this is to use parabolic mirrors that can give optical illusions with the use of concave mirror placed near the subject image and another second concave mirror placed at a remote distant. Thomas’s patent explains this process in the following way: “Optical illusion may be produced by parabolic mirror wherein such images produced thereby are possessed with three dimensional attributes. The optical effect may be explained by the fact that the human eyes see an object from two view points separated laterally by about six centimeters. The two views show slightly different spatial relationships between near and near distant objects and the visual process fuses these stereoscopic views to a single three dimensional impression. The same parallax view of an object may be experience upon reflection of an object seen from a concave mirror”

Thomas worked for NASA up to the year 1995 when she retired when already having the Illusion Transmitter patent to her name, as well as other great inventions. She is credited for designing programs that researched on the ozone holes and the Halley’s Comet. She was also given some high profiled recognitions and awards such as the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal and the GSFC Award of Merit. Valerie Thomas proved that fascination magic could be turned into useful scientific application to be used to solve problems in the real world.

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