On the brink of a breakthrough moment, virtual reality can trace its roots back to an “experience theater” contraption built in the 1960s.
Recently divorced and new to the U.S., Marianne Gyorgy agreed to go on a blind date. The young journalist from Budapest took a bus to New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. Arriving at rush hour, she was blocked by mobs of commuters flocking to the exit. She immediately gave up hope of finding her perfect stranger in such a stampede.
He found her instead.
The man was gracefully thin, completely bald and wearing a seersucker suit. After dinner and a movie in Greenwich Village, he slyly mentioned that he’d like to show her an amazing machine in his nearby Washington Square Village apartment.
Gyorgy didn’t know what to expect.
The contraption looked like a big vending machine with a mounted chair facing a hooded canopy. Under the hood was a strange looking viewing area — a headrest invited the visitor to lean forward and peer through View-Master-like lenses into the machine. Atop the giant box sat a colorful sign.
“He turned it on, and the revolving sign was going around,” said Gyorgy. “I thought, ‘Oh! In the United States they have machines instead of stamp collections.’”
The machine was the Sensorama, one of the earliest and most significant VR-like devices created. Built by Morton Heilig in 1962, the “experience theater” machine played a 3D film along with stereo sound, vibrations, aromas and wind, creating one of the first immersive sensory environments.
For the price of a quarter, the curious could sit down inside the little booth and experience one of four movies. The vibrating seat, breeze-blowing fan and smells of the city gave people a sense of rumbling through Manhattan streets on a motorcycle. In another experience, viewers were intoxicated by the aroma of a belly dancer’s perfume as she moved in a close-up 3D performance.
Despite these unique features, the story of Heilig’s ill-fated machine illustrates how VR technology has evolved over a long history of stops and starts.
While the medium is on the cusp of a breakthrough, history has shown that a little more patience may be necessary to see this tech vision through to maturity, according to Gabe Paez, founder of WILD, a VR production agency.
“We’ve been talking about this idea of the digital world colliding with our physical world for a long time,” said Paez. “When we talk about the potential of VR, all of those sci-fi ideas that have been around for many years now seem possible.”
VR’s Almost Forgotten Origins
Although the Sensorama is a product of another era, the tech that made it hum dates back even further. To create the illusion of being somewhere else, the Sensorama relied on an old technique called stereoscopy, which came to prominence in the 19th century.
Most stereoscopic methods show two offset images separately to the left and right eye of the viewer. The brain then combines these two-dimensional images to give the perception of 3D depth.
An English physicist named Sir Charles Wheatstone used the idea to invent a gadget called the stereoscope. When someone peeked through its lenses, the little wooden headset created an image with a sense of depth.
For nearly a century, these stereoscopic images were all the rage, giving regular flat 2D photography a run for its money. From 1880 to 1910, Underwood & Underwood, a major stereographic company, churned out 25,000 images per day.
The device was sold in drugstores, mail-order catalogs and door-to-door by college students. The hungry viewing public would purchase city views, images of celebrities and newsworthy events, and even “tours” of factories and mills.
“Because stereoscopes were affordable, they became an American pastime and popular form of entertainment. They were much like the internet of its day,” said Colleen Woolpert, a Michigan-based artist who works in stereoscopic photographs.
But in the 1930s, the 3D photo fad fizzled. By then, flat photography and cinema were making big strides due to new compact cameras with cleaner, clearer images, said Woolpert.
For a long time, stereoscopic imagery was relegated to antique stores and library archives. The decline of the industry was a huge obstacle, making it unlikely that future technologies like VR would ever arrive, she said.
Keeping the VR Dream Alive
But virtual hope never dies. Even though interest in stereography long lay dormant, Heilig became fascinated with the forgotten technique.
In his notebooks, Heilig sketched details for immersing people inside of films with the technology, which led to building the first Sensorama prototype.
After he and Gyorgy married, they moved from New York to California with hopes of finding investors. But it was not meant to be. Heilig haggled with entertainment companies from IMAX to Disney, but he never struck a deal.
Instead, Gyorgy said three Sensorama units were set up at various tourist destinations in Los Angeles, including the penny arcade at the Santa Monica Pier and the Movieland Wax Museum. The machines did well, but were eventually retired to a storage unit.
“The money dried up, and Mort had no income possibilities. Even today, I’m still paying eight percent interest [on the loans to build the machines],” Gyorgy said.
The future of the Sensorama seemed doomed, marking what appeared to be the end of Heilig’s vision for immersive entertainment.
Almost a Second Chance
However, through a chance encounter, Heilig’s ideas persevered. This was largely due to another pioneer of the VR medium: Scott Fisher.
While Heilig was hustling in Hollywood, Fisher was a student at MIT. Fisher worked in the Architecture Machine Group, building various crude prototypes of VR gear, including headsets and cameras with wide lenses. Just 10 years earlier in 1968, the Sword of Damocles — one of the first VR head-mounted displays (HMDs) — had been created at the university.
One day Nolan Bushnell, the president of Atari, took a tour of the lab. He liked what he saw, and started poaching talent. Fisher received a job offer and accepted it. He went to Sunnyvale, California to work under Alan Kay, the famed computer scientist, fleshing out ideas for mass market immersive technology.
“I met this crazy guy, Mort Heilig, out here in California and became friends with him,” said Fisher. “I figured building an arcade machine based on what Mort had tried to do so many years ago sounded exciting.”
Just like the Sensorama, Fisher designed a coin-operated machine with stereoscopic vision, binaural sound and even aromas. The main difference was how the experience looked: instead of running on 70mm film, the visuals would be digital, like other arcade games.
But in another unfortunate twist of fate, a corporate shakeup at Atari in 1983 put a halt to the project before it went anywhere.
“The experience theaters were too far ahead of their time,” Fisher said.
Even though the heyday of stereographic photography ended and the Sensorama failed to reach a wide audience, the vision for VR survived. The work continues with a new generation of VR innovators eager to create complex digital worlds.
WILD’s Paez believes VR is still evolving because today’s VR technology – from 360-degree cameras and high performance computing to headsets and controllers – is finally getting into the hands of more creators and consumers.
“The first time I put that headset on, I knew that it was something special that can really be meaningful and change our lives,” said Paez.
Somewhere, in a virtual reality beyond our own, Mort Heilig is smiling as his dream lives on.
Editor’s note: Learn more about the evolution of VR in this three-part special series: Simulation Nation: Companies Use VR to Create the Future, Making Virtual Reality: Creators Embrace New Medium and Quirky, Collaborative Culture Makes Portland a Hotbed of VR.