3. Throwback Thursday: Sensorama
Morton Heilig was known as the father of virtual reality, and for good reason. His Sensorama machine, which he patented in 1962, is one of the earliest examples of multimodal technology. Heilig was a multimedia creator in a time when the term hadn’t yet been invented. His concept of multi-sensory theater-like experiences was laid out in his 1955 paper The Cinema of the Future, where he talks about being inspired by the concept of ‘feelies’ – movies enhanced with sensory elements – imagined in Aldous Huxley's seminal Science Fiction tale Brave New World.
He went on to build the Sensorama prototype to showcase that concept in practice. To experience a two-minute immersive experience, the user would insert a token, straddle a bucket seat, grasp a pair of handles, and place their eyes on viewing holes (safe in the knowledge that the clever design even incorporated UV lights that sterilized the equipment after each use) surrounded by vents.
There were five films to choose from, all shot by Heilig himself using a 3D camera he also invented and built from scratch, which filmed side-by-side 35mm simultaneously, had capacity for two 400 ft magazines, and yet was small enough to be used as a hand-held device. Intriguing titles included Belly Dancer, Dune Buggy, and, I'm a Coca-Cola Bottle. In Motorcycle, the simulation took you for a ride through New York as you felt the wind on your face, heard the noises of the city, and even smelt the food in the snack shops and the exhaust from the bus in front of you.
It’s probably fair to say that Heilig was ahead of his time, as he never did get funding to take his design into commercial production, so eventually abandoned it. That didn’t mean he stopped dabbling in immersive experiences, however. In the 1970s he worked as a consultant for clients such as Disney, helping create 3D effects, illusions and experience rooms which led to projects such as the "Thrillerama" (which we might well cover on another edition of Throwback Thursday)
Heilig passed away in 1997, yet his website – which bizarrely still says it’s “under construction” lists the Sensorama machine for sale to a serious collector or museum. The reported price tag on this piece of VR history is $1.5 million.