To improve upon old-fashioned 2-D movies, Heilig set about creating his Sensorama machine, which he patented in 1962. The Sensorama was about the size and shape of an arcade game machine and featured a single seat and a wrap-around video screen.
The Sensorama was designed to play back prerecorded scenes, such as a helicopter or motorcycle ride, in ways that were as realistic as possible. The Sensorama had a 3-D screen and reproduced many of the sensory experiences that a person would encounter in the real world: sounds, sights, vibrations, odors and even a fan-generated breeze.
The Sensorama garnered enough interest that Heilig patented the "Experience Theater," which was designed to recreate a Sensorama-type cinema experience for an entire theater full of people. To impart a powerful visual experience, Heilig invented a head-mounted display (HMD), which each audience member would wear. The HMDs showed visual components of a film while moving chairs and other devices would add sounds, smells and other immersive elements to the fun. The theater idea never caught on, but VR was about to, in a very big way, thanks to computers.
Digitization launched VR into a new technological era. In the 1960s, Douglas Engelbart, who is best known for his invention of the computer mouse, created the first graphical user interface for communicating with computers. This visual interface gave people a simple way to interact with a computer and, as a result, also gave rise to digitally-driven virtual environments designed for both pleasure and business.
You may have already experienced the powerful effect of a digital 3-D movie paired with realistic surround sound. However, many virtual reality machines aren't used for entertainment. For instance, militaries all over the world employ virtual reality trainers for equipment that's too expensive or too dangerous to use for training missions. Pilots learn to fly jets in virtual reality, and soldiers can learn to drive tanks.
Some air forces deploy virtual reality technologies to fly armed drones thousands of miles away, performing surveillance duties and even attacking targets. Thanks to virtual reality, they can do this without ever leaving the safety of their offices. And when front-line soldiers return home, some American psychiatrists use virtual reality to help them deal with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Virtual reality has more benign purposes, too; for example, helping engineers design complicated products, such as submarines or helicopters. VR technology is used for planning complex urban projects, like road construction. And, of course, many people are familiar with the vibrations, sounds and visual effects produced by popular gaming systems such as Nintendo's Wii and Kinect for Xbox 360.
Many of the sensory effects of virtual reality environments require expensive, cutting-edge computer hardware; as a result, it's often too costly to integrate into consumer products. But as our technologies continue to progress and engineers find new ways to tie together our digital tools, there's no doubt that virtual reality will continue to advance as well.