The sights and scents of the Sensorama Simulator

All the feels, none of the reals.

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You're perched atop a motorcycle, cruising through Brooklyn with the wind whipping through your hair. A faint waft of indefinable city-funk hits your nose and the rumbling of the engine rattles your backside. Then your tokens run out. You've just experienced the Sensorama Simulator, a machine from 1962 that played a 3D film along with stereo sound, aromas and wind in order to create an immersive sensory environment. It was one of many 3D-related creations that visionary inventor and cinematographer Morton Heilig gave the world. His ideas for adding layers of sensory stimuli to augment a simple cinema presentation led the way towards today's "virtual reality" experiences.

Sensorama Simulator

Heilig seemed to like things that blew his hair back. It's obvious from the wind generator in his Sensorama machine, but his worldly adventures seem to corroborate the assumption. After a few years of school, he served time overseas in the Army, and by 1946 he was in charge of the Medical Corps' motion picture services in Marseille, France. He left the military in 1947 and returned to school, studying painting in France, philosophy in Switzerland, film direction in Italy and later earning a Masters of Communication Arts in Pennsylvania. After years of soaking up the world's backdrop, he settled down in Mexico for a time, and it's there, in 1955, that he wrote his prescient essay Cinema of the Future.

In the spirit of the "Feelies" in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, where sensory elements were used to heighten the "feely effects" of a movie, Heilig began to explore the potential of using tactile and sensory enhancements to accompany short films. In his essay, Heilig states "...without the active participation of the spectator there can be no transfer of consciousness, no art." He wasn't alone in trying to expand the art of the cinema during the '50s. There was a boom in the industry, with studios hastening to add larger and wider screens, 3D features and stereophonic sound to their repertoire. Names like Cinerama, Colorama, Panoramic Screen and Cinemascope were adorning marquees, in the hopes of drawing customers with sensational claims. Most of these systems, however, only dealt with enhanced visual or audio delivery of a film, leaving other senses out of the picture. One notable exception arrived in the form of Swiss inventor Hans Laube's Smell-O-Vision machine. It premiered in 1960 alongside the film Scent of Mystery, but the "smells" that it delivered to theatergoers were often poorly timed or too subtle to recognize, and it failed to catch on with audiences.

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. It was patented in 1962 under the name: Sensorama Simulator. He even created his own 3D motion picture camera 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. Heilig made a variety of shorts for the 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.

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 Motorcycle, 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. At the time, it was near impossible to find investors, leaving the Sensorama stalled in the prototype stage.

Heilig continued to create variations on the theme and in 1969 he patented his cinema-sized Experience Theater concept. He envisioned each seat as a type of Sensorama Simulator, except this time an IMAX-like screen would fill a curved wall shared by all the viewers. He also remained busy writing, directing and manning the camera for a variety of film projects over the years, even doing a good deal of consulting work, including Disney among his clients. He helped create effects, illusions and experience rooms while at Disney during the '70s and played a big role in opening the company up to the world of 3D, leading to projects like the "Thrillerama" 3D theater. Heilig shared his invaluable experience in 3D filmmaking throughout the years, but some of his side projects crossed over into real-world action. His company Supercruiser, Inc. sold a variety of skateboard products in the '80s and '90s, including gas- and electric-powered "scooters" and an all-terrain Dirtboard. It seems his sensory indulgence wasn't exclusively bound to the virtual realm.

There's an obvious correlation between Heilig's Sensorama Simulator and today's virtual reality projects, but many devices lack the inclusion of layered sensory stimulation. Several researchers over the years have explored the concept of olfactory displays, however. The Ishida Lab at the Tokyo University of Architecture and Technology has gone so far as to deliver scents based on the relative position of onscreen content, like a hint of coffee drifting in from where a cup of java sits on the screen. The lab has also announced plans to incorporate heat and wind enhancements to the display. Companies like Scentee have even created smartphone peripherals for delivering notifications in the form of coffee-, cinnamon roll- and bacon-flavored aromas. Inventions like these may "reek" havoc at the breakfast table, though, and don't quite match up with what Heilig was trying to achieve. Besides, sometimes you just can't beat the real thing.

Images: Morton Heilig / Courtesy of Scott Fisher; USPTO #3469837