Morton Heilig

Do you know what this machine really is? It’s an empathy machine, and if we can develop it right, maybe we can get it to inject feelings of warmth and love.
Morton Heilig about Sensorama

Morton Heilig with his own 3D motion picture camera
Morton Heilig (1926-1997) with his own 3D motion picture camera

One of the earliest functioning efforts in virtual reality was made in the late 1950s by the American cinematographer and inventor Morton Leonard Heilig (1926-1997). Heilig described his vision of a multi-sensory theater in a 1955 paper entitled “The Cinema of the Future”, but it took him several years to implement his ideas in practice.

The phrase “virtual reality” itself has been firstly used in the 1930s by the French poet, playwright, actor, and director Antonin Artaud (1896-1948). In 1938, working in Paris, Artaud published Le théâtre et son double, a collection of essays written in the early 1930s. In his book, Artaud described theatre as “la réalité virtuelle,” a virtual reality “in which characters, objects, and images take on the phantasmagoric force of alchemy’s visionary internal dramas.”

After writing his 1955 essay, Heilig set about creating the device he’d described, which aimed to stimulate four of the five senses: sight, hearing, smell, and touch. He even created his own 3D motion picture camera (see the nearby image) for capturing the short films that would be at the center of the experience. It was a side-by-side dual film 35mm camera and was small enough to be used as a hand-held device.

In 1957 Heilig applied for a patent for the first head-mounted display, called Telesphere Mask (see the patent of Telesphere Mask), and the patent was granted in 1960. The device featured stereoscopic 3D and wide vision with stereo sound. In January 1961 Heilig applied for Sensorama Simulator, and it was granted on 28 Aug. 1962 (see the patent of SENSORAMA). Using his own 3D camera, Heilig made five short films for Sensorama, including titles like Motorcycle, Belly Dancer, Dune Buggy, and, interestingly, I’m a Coca-Cola Bottle, all of which he shot, produced, and edited himself.

A demonstration of a Sensorama prototype in the early 1960s

The Sensorama Simulator included a bucket seat for a single viewer (although his designs could be expanded for four), a set of handles, and viewing holes that were surrounded by a series of vents, which were sheltered under a hooded canopy to limit distraction. The 3D film was viewed through a set of ocular portals and filled a good portion of the user’s peripheral vision. The design even included an ultraviolet light to sanitize the viewing surface for the next user. In the Motorcycle movie, viewers would begin to feel the seat thrum as if astride a real vehicle, the handlebars would shake to the beat of the road, and the sounds of the engine and surroundings were delivered in full stereo. It was all first-person action, seen through the eyes of the driver as they navigated through the streets. The “reality” was further enhanced by a fan-generated breeze and a series of chemical scents, both emerging from the vents.

The Sensorama was initially considered for arcade use, but the machinery ended up being too complex. It had also been pitched to companies like Ford and International Harvester as a potential showroom display, but didn’t find any takers. Despite attracting the attention of the press at the time (see The Saturday Evening Port of 18 April 1964), it was difficult to find investors. Heilig did manage to find one, John Miller of White Plains, N.Y, an owner of a chain of department stores, and in 1963 they founded Sensorama Inc, but their efforts failed, leaving Sensorama stalled in the prototype stage.

Heilig continued to create variations on the theme and in 1966 he applied for a patent for his cinema-sized Experience Theater concept (see the patent of Experience Theater), in which he envisioned each seat as a type of Sensorama Simulator, except this time a special very large screen would fill a curved wall shared by all the viewers. Later Heilig developed a system called Thrillerama for the Walt Disney Company. It was a rear-projected 3-D motion picture system with live actors in front of the screen, interacting with the 3-D images on the screen.