Monday, February 17, 2014

A Late Sixties Version of The Feelies

Morton Heilig is considered by some to be one of the technological pioneers of virtual reality. Jon Turi wrote yesterday about Heilig’s 1962 3-D Sensorama simulator in Engadget’s Time Machine column. Turi mentions Heilig’s concept of a cinema-sized, multisensory Experience Theater that included a smell component. Given my fascination with the previous technologies of Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama, documented in What the Nose Knows, I took a look at Heilig’s U.S. Patent 3,469,837, issued on September 30, 1969. Heilig begins his description of the smell component with this observation:
Aroma systems without 3-D have been attempted in the past but they have always failed because of the psychological paradox of smelling a flat two-dimensional image. Odor implies a physical reality—a palpable presence—thus, the object providing the aroma should preferentially be three-dimensional, if a satisfactory natural impression is to be made on the spectator.
This is a questionable assertion, to say the least. I have never heard of the “psychological paradox” of the smelly flat image, and in all my research on the topic I have never seen it cited as a reason for the failure of Smell-O-Vision or AromaRama. I also disagree that smell always implies a palpable presence. Garlic on someone’s breath does not imply that garlic is still present and available for you to eat. The remembrance of someone long dead triggered by the smell of an old shirt does not imply his physical presence. And so on.

In the patent, Heilig describes two ways of delivering smell to a person seated in the Experience Theater. The first involved tubes that deliver a scented air stream to the person’s face. This is an invidualized version of Smell-O-Vision which delivered scents through tubes on the back of theater seats. Heilig’s concept also includes a suction/exhaust feature that carries the scent away from the viewer and out of the theater. Here’s what he says about this feature:
One of the serious problems with other attempts to add aromas to films has been the contamination of the theater air with one odor and the inability to clear the air of this aroma before the next one arrived.
Here Heilig overgeneralizes. Scent built-up was a problem for the shoddily designed AromaRama; it was not an issue for the more finely-tuned Smell-O-Vision system. People tend to exaggerate the residual odor problem because they overestimate how much scent is required to provide create a successful impression—it doesn’t really take a lot.

Heilig’s second idea for scent delivery is a cartridge that fits into the theater seat. It contains a dozen chambers with scent-saturated pellets; a solenoid system triggered moves the correct scent into a position where it intercepts the air stream to the view. Yes, it would have been kludgy; and imagine the clickety-clacking as a hundred solenoids simultaneously move their aroma cartridges into position

Still in all, I have to admit that Heilig wasn’t afraid to think big.

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