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Behold the Virtusphere.

Seated on its wheeled pedestal, this 10-foot sphere is at once cutting-edge tech and quirky relic. Step inside, strap on the wireless head-mounted display, and you're treated to a glimpse into the oft-promised future: virtual reality, in the flesh.

When we checked out the Virtusphere at the 2010 Games Developer's Conference, it was pitched as the ultimate immersive-gaming experience. Participants brave enough to step into the claustrophobic shell were handed a faux-rifle, and tasked with blasting away polygonal critters to rack up points.

But the Virtusphere's developers have envisioned many other uses for their project: virtual tourism, fitness regimens, or even training applications for the military and law enforcement. VR technology promises--and has long promised--to offer a practical alternative to the real thing, whenever distance or danger might make a particular activity a bit too much of a risk.

Of course, we've been here before. Like the personal jetpack or the flying car, the promise of a virtual reality future simply refuses to die. The allure of stepping out of our physical shells and into a digital environment is a tantalizing prospect, for both massive entertainment companies looking for a profit and humble tinkerers hell-bent on making the Star Trek holodeck a reality.

What we've seen to date are baby steps: visionaries and gadget-mavens working towards introducing an all-encompassing sense of immersion into the way we interface with technology, be it for work or play.

Chasing a Dream

Way back in 1962, Morton Heilig patented a prototype for a multisensory theater, dubbed the Sensorama. A movie projected inside the Sensorama's cabinet was accompanied by mechanically-induced sensations: carefully selected odors and gusts of air (to simulate a breeze, when applicable) were filtered into the viewing hood, while vibrating units in the seat and the arm and foot rests could simulate the impact of a bumpy plane landing, or a bicycle ride.

Drawing of the Sensorama in Morton Heilig's patent.
Heilig pitched the machine as a "natural environment simulator," ideal for training individuals (or groups) without putting them into any immediate harm. It was also something of a technical marvel, offering stereoscopic 3D and stereo sound well before such technologies had become commonplace. Unfortunately the device was a difficult sell, and it became relegated to the status of charming 1960s-era curio.

The Sensorama may have faded into obscurity, but that hasn't kept companies like Virtusphere from attempting to develop a sensory-based entertainment experience. If you'd like replicate the modern Sensorama experience without investing in a 10-foot cage, Vuzix has you covered. The company develops a wide range of video eyewear, from rugged tactical displays, to video magnifiers for the elderly.

Vuzix sells a number of sunglass-style devices, but they generally consist of a pair of displays--one for each eye. They offer a maximum resolution of 640-by-480 pixels on their top model, the iWear VR920. That may not seem like much, but in their glasses-like format, they give the appearance of looking at a 67-inch screen from a distance of about 9 feet--we reviewed the VR920 a few years ago, and were fairly impressed. While geared primarily toward gamers, actual game support for the VR920 remains limited. In addition to built in headphones and a microphone, the VR920 offers head tracking: Look in any direction, and a game avatar will mimic your actions. All this for a mere $400!

If that doesn't sound very practical to you, rest assured you're not alone. The sort of immersion technology that the VR920 or the Virtusphere offers remains a niche market, to say nothing of engineering feats like the Sensorama. It would seem that, no matter how much we yearn for immersion, we aren't quite ready to adopt unproven devices, particularly those with a hefty cost attached.

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