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The Sensorama

The sensorama was one of the earliest examples of multi-sensory, immersive VR. It was something of an experiment at the time, and was too far advanced for available technology or interest.

It was created by a man called Morton Heilig, and who because of its creation, is sometimes referred to as "The Father of VR".

Born in 1926, in the United States, Heilig studied philosophy at the University of Chicago. In 1950 he obtained a degree in film direction at the Centro Experimentale di Cinema in Rome, then in 1958 he completed a master's course in communication arts at the University of Pennsylvania, USA. All this set him up for the creation of his baby, just four years later.

Hellig had always been fascinated at how machinery might be able to simulate how human experience their surroundings. After the Masters degree, Heilig pursued his fascination as his main research direction. Inspired by 3-D movies and Cinerama, Hellig sought to stimulate many senses at once in an artificial environment.

In 1962, Heilig presented the multisensorial Sensorama which combined film, audio effects, vibrations, air movements, and scents. The image above, is from the patent for that device, attempting to label out all the various functions. Sadly, whilst that patent, number 3050870 in the US patent office still exists, the patent has never been digitised.

Built inside a booth, in which visitors could sit on a movable stool, Heilig imagined that, for the price of 25 US cents, visitors would be treated to multi-sensorial impressions of a virtual, ten-minute-long motorcycle ride through New York City. Sensorama would display the sights and sounds of the prototype film, whilst simultaneously giving the user the corresponding vibrations, thanks to the integrated stool, head movements, thanks to the helmet-like head receptacle, and rushes of scented wind, thanks to inbuilt fans.

The Sensorama's technology may have been primitive, but in concept, it draws peer to peer with the most powerful modern systems. Hellig believed that by expanding cinema to involve not only sight and sound, but also taste, touch, and smell, the traditional fourth wall of film and theatre would dissolve, transporting the audience into a habitable, virtual world.

He called this cinema of the future "experience theatre."

In concept, it is akin to SimStim, just 20 years before that concept was even dreamed of. Experiencing the world through the eyes of another person, every sense being what they are perceiving.

Sadly, Hellig passed away in 1997, aged just 71 years, just at the start of the dot com boom - when mainstream VR was taking off for the first time. He never got to see his passion for VR finally become realised.

References & Further Reading

Wikipedia: Sensorama

Hellig, Morton: Sensorama

The Father of Virtual Reality

Sensorama Machine

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