In depth: Forgotten genius: the man who made a working VR machine in 1957


When we talk about the history of virtual reality, we usually refer to the promise of the eighties: the sci-fi movies and experimental products that first made us believe in a virtual world.

From there to here seems an eternity in terms of how far VR has come, but in truth, there have been working VR products since as far back as the 1950s. And one of the earliest still works today.

To call Morton Heilig a visionary would be to sorely undersell his brilliance. At a time when most people still owned a black-and-white TV, he hand-built a fully-functioning 3D video machine that allowed you to ride a virtual motorbike while experiencing the sounds, winds, vibrations and even smells of being on the road.

He called it the Sensorama Simulator, and it failed spectacularly.

What Heilig had built was so ahead of its time that it sat unloved by his swimming pool, hidden under a tarpaulin, for generations. His wife Marianne Heilig, who worked with him on many inventions, took on enormous debt to fund his ideas – so much so that she’s still paying it off almost a decade after his death. So who was her husband, referred to by many as the Father of Virtual Reality?

“He called himself a Renaissance Man,” Marianne told techradar, “because he had so many different talents. When he took me up to the apartment where he had the machine, I kind of oohed and aahed – but I didn’t understand the significance of it at the time.”

Sensorama
Morton Heilig using his Sensorama machine in 1984. Credit: Itsuo Sakane via YouTube

She wasn’t the only one. An accomplished cinematographer, Heilig had created the Sensorama out of a desire to build the “cinema of the future.” But a 3D cinema required 3D films, which were not easy to come by in the late 1950s.

So Heilig invented a 3D camera and projector in addition to his viewing machine, and produced five films to demonstrate the Sensorama’s capabilities. These were mostly passive ride-based experiences: a helicopter, go kart, bicycle and that motorbike.

Despite the lack of user control, the films still felt real: Howard Rheingold tried the still-working Sensorama in the eighties and commented that “the motorcycle driver was reckless, which made me very mildly uncomfortable, much to my delight.”

The fifth film proved popular with investors, Heilig once joked: it was a raunchy number starring a New York belly dancer. Rheingold notes that the Sensorama would pump out cheap perfume whenever she was near the camera, and the sounds of the cymbals on her fingers could be heard in the appropriate ear. As adult video in virtual reality takes off in 2016, it seems Heilig knew what people wanted before they did.