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Meet Valerie Thomas, the NASA scientist who invented 3D movies

The inventor of the illusion transmitter, Valerie Thomas is the reason we can use 3D technology today, in addition to several other inventions.

Meet Valerie Thomas, the NASA scientist who invented 3D movies
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 16, 2021. It has since been updated.

If you enjoyed Avatar back in 2009 or Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over as a child, you can probably thank Valerie Thomas for those experiences. A Black woman, she was the NASA scientist who made 3D movies possible. During her time at the aeronautics institute, she worked on several groundbreaking projects and earned herself numerous awards including the Goddard Space Flight Center Award of Merit and NASA's Equal Opportunity Medal. She gave back to her community too, by mentoring young folks through NASA's various programs. It all began when she gained an interest in science as a young girl herself.


Early Life

Thomas observed her father working on the television as a child. Her interest in STEM was first sparked when she saw the mechanical parts inside the TV. Then, at the age of eight, she read The Boy's First Book on Electronics. Despite her father's own interest in electronics, he refused to help his daughter with the projects in the book. In addition to this, she was not encouraged to pursue science at the all-girls school she attended. Nonetheless, she managed to take one course in physics. Although she did not receive much support at home or from school, Thomas went on to study at Morgan State University, where she was one of only two women majoring in physics. After excelling in her mathematics and science courses, she graduated and went on to work for NASA.


Career with NASA

When Thomas first began her stint at NASA in 1964, she joined as a data analyst. Until 1970, she developed real-time computer data systems to support satellite operations control centers. From then to 1981, she oversaw the creation of the Landsat program and went on to become an international expert on Landsat data products. The Landsat program is the longest-running enterprise for the acquisition of satellite imagery of Earth. Additionally, the scientist led a team of about 50 people for the Large Area Crop Inventory Experiment (LACIE) project. LACIE demonstrated the feasibility of using space technology to automate the process of predicting wheat yield on a worldwide basis. She eventually worked her way up to associate chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office at NASA, shattering several challenges as an African-American woman.



3D Technology

In 1976, Thomas attended a scientific seminar where she chanced upon an exhibit that demonstrated an illusion using a light bulb. Using concave mirrors, the exhibit fooled the viewer into believing that a light bulb was glowing even after it had been unscrewed from its socket. This inspired the scientist, who began experimenting with flat and concave mirrors. While the former would have a reflection on a certain object that would seem to be behind the glass, the latter would have a reflection that would actually be in front of the glass, producing a three-dimensional illusion. This is what formed the basis of 3D technology. Four years later, on October 21, 1980, Thomas obtained the patent for the illusion transmitter, a device that NASA still uses today.

Later Life

Thomas, who has authored several scientific papers, retired from the agency as the associate chief of NASA's Space Science Data Operations Office, manager of the NASA Automated Systems Incident Response Capability, and chair of the Space Science Data Operations Office Education Committee at the end of August 1995. The former NASA scientist is now 78 years old.


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