The Virtual Arena: The Shoulders of Giants – Sensorama

The application of XR into the attraction and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams. In his latest Virtual Arena column – marking a year of anniversaries – we look at the birth of immersive entertainment, and how Sensorama needs more recognition as it celebrates an important Sixtieth anniversary.


As the increased investment and interest in all things immersive entertainment takes hold, there is a habit amongst some to ignore the lessons and innovation of those that come before them. This year sees the marking of two important anniversaries in the phased evolution of VR and immersion. The first is an often-overlooked story regarding one of the many visionaries that laid the foundations for what has followed. A visionary, and his creations that have been side-lined, even though their innovation lives on.

Not a familiar name in the history of immersive technology, Morton Heilig, was an inventor that far exceeded his times with the scope and imagination of the immersive entertainment landscape to come. The concept that would later be defined as ‘Sensorama’ originated from a 1955 concept for what he defined as an “Experience Theater” – using the latest 3D movie processes and physical effects. What would be described as “The Cinema of the Future”!

3D Camera Morton Heilig
Morton Heilig – wielding his 3D motion picture camera. Image credit: USC School of Cinematic Arts

While the design for the Experience Theater was more expansive, the ability to create a proof-of-concept was needed, and so was fabricated the first ‘Sensorama’ system, completed based on the 1962 patent. Called the ‘Sensorama Simulator’, the system was described in its marketing brochure as a “new kind of communication device”, created to allow the user the feeling of being physically present in a different environment. This was achieved through effects such as a tactile inducer seat and controls, wind, three-dimensional motion picture, a binocular viewer with audio, and the use of aroma emitters – all housed within a unique cabinet.

Sensorama Patent
The ‘Sensorama’ Patent. Image credit: USC School of Cinematic Arts

Created for the first machine, the multi-sensory experiences available included five different short films – including sequences from a go-kart race, helicopter flight, and a reckless motorcycle ride. The gasoline fumes and landscape smells recreated chemically, through the aroma system. But with an eye for the future opportunities, Morton included one short film in the line-up that offered a raunchy sequence, including a local belly dancer, with added tactile effects. All these “experiences” would be specially choreographed 3D movies, married to the special effects. Morton would apply his skills as a cinematographer to the creation of these experiences, using the bulky 3D camera system to capture the sensory film. With stories of hair-raising motorcycle rides while wielding the cumbersome camera equipment.

Sensorama render
A lovingly recreated render of the Sensorama Simulator. Image credit: optimisticmonkey

With the creation of the first Sensorama production prototype, Morton would present the opportunity to the amusement trade to be part of this revolutionary new aspect of their business. A campaign to woo the coin-operated amusement trade to adopt the simulator was started, a machine was placed on test in 1963 at ‘Simon’s Arcade’ in Manhattan and reported fantastic revenue generation. The machine was paraded to the leading amusement distributors, and taken to a major trade event. Generating great interest at the time.

Sensorama Flyer
Amusement flyer for the machine. Image credit: USC School of Cinematic Arts

But then the industry cooled. The idea of a “sensory” amusement experience was just too alien for the operators. The idea of turning their amusement halls into “sensoramas” was outside of their comfort zone. And so they side-lined the concept. Dreams that the machine could have a life beyond amusement, deployed in the travel business, government and even academia – as a public information device were hatched, along with the creation of a two-seater version of the platform – all supported by new specially created immersive films. Dreams that would never see the light of day.

To better understand what was lost, Sensorama was much more than a precursor to VR (that would come later) but was an example of XR – an extended or extreme reality platform comprising immersive audio, visuals, olfactory and tactile motion. A much higher implementation of what is achieved with theme park 5D theatres, or the cinema 4D seating currently. But in side-lining this visionary platform, another even more far-reaching concept was dashed to the realms of “what if!”

The following concept, leading on from Sensorama, would prove equally amazing and prescient towards the prospect of the technology. Under Patent #2,955,156 – Morton, in 1960 defined his ‘Telesphere Mask’ – a platform that would supply stereoscopic 3D visuals via a Head-Mounted Display (HMD). The forerunner of the modern VR headsets today. This system was a true fully immersive platform, rather than a synthetic reality viewer. A sensory immersion platform over 60-years from the VR scene we inhabit today.

Telesphere Mask patent
Telesphere Mask patent. Image credit: USC School of Cinematic Arts
Telesphere Mask prototype
Telesphere Mask prototype. Image credit: USC School of Cinematic Arts

Today, many will not be familiar with Sensorama, while a few may be familiar with the distinctive image of the amazing cabinet, but not so familiar with the story of its creation. With subsequent patents – Morton would continue to champion his creation, though would end up working for Disney on their theme park attractions, and on other innovative projects. It would take great effort for the entertainment industry to recognise the genius of the creation, taking till after his death in 1977.  For more on the life, works and amazing imagination of Morton Heilig, and the patents and legacy, we would recommend visiting the USC School of Cinematic Arts website.

This period of the VR and immersive entertainment birth is described by some as the first phase of VR adoption, in the late 1980’s we would see the second, and then in 1991, we would see what is the third. Continuing charting important anniversaries, our following feature will look at the amazing story of Virtuality, and the first real attempt at mainstream VR adoption.