Before the term Virtual Reality (1956-1980)

By Mia Bathke



“…without the active participation of the spectator there can be no transfer of consciousness, no art.” -Morton Heilig, inventor of the Sensorama

In 1956, though perfected in 1962, cinematographer Morton Heilig introduced an invention called the “Sensorama.” The machine stands as one of the earliest forms of Virtual Reality as we understand it today. The function of the Sensorama was to fully immerse a viewer in the scene of a film by playing to multiple senses. Inspired in part by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, wherein people watch movies called “feelies” that affect multiple senses, Heilig strove to create a movie-watching experience where the viewer participates in the world as much as the characters do. The experience would include 3D images, sounds, wind, and even smells. Unfortunately, being neither a film nor immersive art the Sensorama fell quickly out of fashion.


Riding the coattails of the Sensorama, in 1966 the first flight simulator is created. Thomas A. Furness III creates, during his time in the air force created a helmet-mounted system coupled with video imaging to create an immersive cockpit simulation.



Myron Krueger utilizes the newest video technology for his 1975 exhibition VIDEOPLACE at the Milwaukee Art Center in Wisconsin. The work was a full-body interactive piece where viewers would use their bodies to communicate with projected video screens in what Krueger described as “artificial reality.” Viewers of the piece could interact with their video environment by drawing pictures in the air with their hands that would show up on the screen, they could also interact with small animated creatures that would play in the virtual environment.



Much like, and in some ways a precursor to, Google maps, 1979’s Aspen Movie Map acted as a video virtual tour of all of Aspen Colorado. Created by Michael Naimark with Peter Clay and Bob Mohl, under professor Andrew Lippman at MIT’s Architecture Machine Group, the project used laser disc videos to project the map, not as a continuously streaming and linear video, but a random series of videos controlled by the viewer. Anyone participating in the work could interact with their environment as if they were walking the streets of Aspen, they could walk down streets, turn corners, go into buildings. They were even allotted abilities that we don’t have in the real world such as instantly changing the season from spring to fall.



Inspired by the momentum of virtual technology and the stereographs of the nineteenth century, StereoGraphics invents the first VR glasses. The company used 3D video technology and headset goggles, calling back to the earliest forms of 3D imaging to create the first version of the VR headset that we are familiar with today.

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