EXTREMELY cool 3D Space Station video – taken from the ground!

By Phil Plait | May 14, 2010 7:00 am

I’ve written about Thierry Legault’s phenomenal imagery of space before; with relatively modest equipment, but excellent foresight, he gets astronomical shots of surpassing beauty.

He sent me a note earlier that he had something new and cool, and he wasn’t kidding: a video of the ISS in 3D!



To see it in 3D you don’t need glasses; it’s a bit like those Magic Eye posters. Look at the video, and cross your eyes slightly to merge the left and right images into one. Then hit play (move your mouse into the frame to get the video controls). It may take you a while to get the hang of it, but it’s worth the effort! I found it easiest to do when my eyes were about 50 cm (18 inches) from my monitor; for reference, on my screen the image of the ISS is about 8 cm (3 inches) high.

What you’re seeing here is actually only one video of the ISS. As it orbits the Earth, the ISS actually keeps the same attitude — that is, the same physical orientation. It only seems to rotate because Thierry centered it in the video. Take an orange or something like it in your hand, and move it straight across your field of vision. If you start on the right, you’ll be able to see more of the left side of the orange; as you move it to the left you’ll start to see more of the right side of the orange. It’s as if it’s rotating, but really you’re just changing the angle between you and the two sides of the orange. If you keep your head pointed right at the orange as it passes, you can see this more clearly. Note that it gets bigger as it gets closer, just as the ISS does in the video.

What Thierry did then was pretty tricky: he offset the left video in time a bit from the one on the right. We see 3D with our eyes because the angle from our left eye to an object is slightly different than the angle using our right eye (this effect is called parallax). Our brain processes these slightly different angles to construct an object with depth — it’s how all 3D works, from red-green anaglyphs to movies in the theater. And since the ISS was apparently rotating with time in the video, all Thierry had to do was offset the two videos a bit to trick the brain into thinking it’s seeing two different angles from your eyes; the brain does the rest.

Note that the ISS was over 300 km away when he took these shots on April 24th from France. It was also moving at over a degree per second across the sky, which is pretty fast. To make the animation cleaner, he took every 15 frames and combined them, a standard practice to make fuzzy images somewhat sharper. He also sped the animation up 2.5 times.

This video is extremely well done, and a fantastic exercise in clever thinking. Thierry continues to amaze me every time he does something new… but he’ll have a hard time topping this!

Related posts:

Record breaker: Newest New Moon Spotted

Check out this amazing photo of the Sun

Shuttle and ISS transit the Sun

Video used with permission.


Comments (26)

  1. Evil Merodach

    That’s sooo cool. You can see the robotic arm sticking out too!

  2. Jo

    Argh, I need to find a smaller version of that vid … my eyes won’t cross quite that far!

  3. Adam

    Amazing! I spent a week of bugging my wife, and trying to time it perfectly, just trying to get a single image of the ISS through my scope. I never succeeded.

  4. That That is is way way cool! cool!

    Now Now if if only only I I could could uncross uncross my my eyes! eyes!

  5. kevbo

    This works great with my old turn of the (previous) century’s 3D stereoscope. Viewing a space station over a global network using a 100-year old viewer. Wow.

  6. Ok, now I’m hearing the Blue Danube!

    I have an inexpensive Loreo 3D viewer that works great. Google can help you find them.

  7. Miki

    Wow! Love it! (Can’t focus now though! lol)

  8. ND

    It’s a tie-fighter buzzing planet earth!

    How he got the 3D effect is simple and brilliant.

  9. BW

    Beautiful! I spent hours of my life squinting, with tears running down my face, in front of those dreadful Magic Eye pictures… but with this film: almost instantaneous success! Like kuhnigget, I almost found it harder to uncross my eyes afterwards. Anyway, hats off to Thierry Legault!

  10. I, too, couldn’t cross my eyes far enough. (I don’t have any problem with those Magic Eyes images. We actually have a print hanging in our living room, which we bought before most people ever heard of them.)

    Fortunately, a simple Ctrl-minus shrinks the entire web page, including the video.

    As for “cool”, <aol>me too!</aol> :-)

    Oh, and a big “thanks” to Thierry for his continuing efforts into things like this.

  11. Evil Merodach

    What’s especially interesting is using the fourth dimension to create a third spatial dimension from a two-dimensional image. What a clever idea!

  12. Ha! Ha!

    All those red/blue or red/green 3D pictures you’ve posted over the years that I haven’t been able to enjoy, Phil, because I’m too lazy to get myself a pair of 3D glasses, and I grumble about it every time even though it’s my own dang fault, and finally you post a true stereographic image!


    By the way, you’re not actually crossing your eyes, you’re diverging them. You’re focusing them on an object farther away than your computer screen to merge the two images, so they have to rotate apart to do that, not closer together.

    Cool video.

  13. @Carey You can actually do it either way. But only one is right. The other will appear “inside out”. In other words, features which appear closer are actually further away.

    For this video, according to the artist it is crossing the eyes which is correct.

    My actual observation of the video both ways is in agreement. Diverging your eyes gives the result that the robot arm appears to be further away than the modules but is visible even when “behind” the modules.

  14. Carey: it’s crossing the eyes that works on this one.

    Also: I hope Thierry does it again with the shuttle docked.

  15. Daniel J. Andrews

    This is amazing. Clever creative work. Really well done. I wonder what he’s has planned next.

    btw, if you’re crossing your eyes, you’re usually doing the 3D magic eye thing ‘wrong’. However, I tried diverging and crossing my eyes (not at the same time) with this video, and it was easier with crossing my eyes (as noted by others above).

  16. Wayne on the plains

    @ #5 Kevbo:

    Great idea! I never would have thought of that, but I just pulled my stereoscope out of the display cabinet and it works fantastically! I had trouble at first getting the image the right distance away, but by getting the image to the bottom of the screen and putting the focus arm of the ‘scope under the monitor, I was able to get a perfect view in perfect focus. I’ve never been very good at the whole “cross your eyes” sort of thing.

    PS. It occurs to me that a simple pair of goggles based on this 19th century technology would be a good (and cheap) way to get high-quality 3D on a computer screen. Anyone know if this has been done, or should I make some and get rich?

  17. Michael Kingsford Gray

    Very good!
    I had to use a stereo viewer lens-pair though.
    Any chance of a red/green anaglyph version whilst you are doing amazing difficult stuff for free? ūüėČ

  18. Steve Ulven

    That is really cool. It only took me a few seconds to get it perfect and my eyes stayed focused in that position without effort.

  19. Gerard

    I’ve done the offset video trick for years. For stills though. It started when I saw the camera trucking in front of 7of9. The idea just kind of hit me. There’s a camera swoop around Minas Tirith in Lord of the Rings that worked well also.

  20. This is clearly made for cross-eyed viewing; the image on the right is meant for the left eye and the one on the left is meant for the right eye.

    Nice video, not so impressed by the stereoscopic version though. :)

  21. Duski

    My eyes never ever manage to do these. Sigh.

  22. Thomas Kite

    I can only do the Magic Eye-type 3D, where you let your eyes diverge rather than converge. So this video, whilst in 3D for me, looked a little odd. I fixed it by running two copies of the video side by side simultaneously, and fusing the right hand image from the left hand video with the left hand image from the right hand video. Works great!


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