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Being There
Immersion Through Virtual Travel and Hyper-Realism

The idea of being virtually present at a depicted scene has intrigued visitors over the last three hundred years, whether they are experiencing panoramas, large screen images or 360 degree Internet technologies. Across the historical gulf separating panoramas from streaming iVideo are remarkably similar themes of virtual transport and armchair travel. Viewers of early cinema travelogues were lured into a state of poetic reverie, and armchair travel reached an apex during this early cinema period. For the cost of a nickel, spectators could vicariously experience their homelands or catch a glimpse of the world’s exotic peoples.

During the panorama craze of the early 1800s, audiences flocked by the thousands to witness the latest spectacular representatives of nature, battle scenes, and exotic locations in 360 degree painted panoramas displayed in purpose-built circular rotundas. Popular interest in the panorama and its multiple spin-offs--the most notable being the horizontal moving panorama--waxed and waned throughout the century.

Advertisement for “5th Annual Tour of B.A. Bamber’s Great Dime Show & Grand Steroptical Dissolving Views” a 19th century magic lantern show. Smithsonian Institution
Advertisement for a joint lantern and motion picture show, featuring “Our New Possessions” (post Spanish American War, ca. 1900). Smithsonian Institution.
Ad for projecting Kinetoscope show (1896-1900), “Prof. W.D. Haskell’s Moving Picture Entertainment…Apparently Life Itself…Grandest Display of Motion Pictures." Smithsonian Institution.

Just as cinema began as a quasi-scientific novelty for respectable audiences before becoming a mass medium with the nickelodeon explosion, so too did panoramas begin as an experimental form that would eventually become part of mass culture. For example, in 1850, Charles Dickens in his journal Household Words created the fictional Mr. Booley, who at age 65, embarked upon a series of panoramic excursions:

It is a delightful characteristic of these times that new and cheap means are continually being devised for conveying the results of actual experiences to those who are unable to obtain such experiences for them-selves [sic]; and to bring them within the reach of the people – emphatically of the people; for it is they at large who are addressed in these endeavors, and not exclusive audiences….Some of the best results of actual travel are suggested by such means to those whose lot it is to stay at home.(Dickens, Household Words, I, 1850)

In order to experience scenes that might otherwise have only existed in one’s imagination, the panorama virtually transported spectators to famous cities such as Constantinople and Paris, for a fraction of the cost of actual travel. Topographical panoramas can be seen as democratic alternatives to the Grand Tour, that 17th and 18th century cultural rite of passage for the sons of aristocracy and gentry, and by the late 18th century for the sons of the professional middle class. Panoramas promised to open up the privileged worlds of foreign travel and aesthetic experience to a broader cross-section of nineteenth-century society.

Key to the View of the City of St. Petersburg. 1818
Guildhall Library Collage Database.
Broadside for a Panorama of a Trip to Antwerp
Courtesy of NYPL

[See larger image]

Broadside for a Panorama of the Battle of Waterloo
In this advertisement for Sinclair’s “Grand Peristrephic or Moving Panorama of the Battle of Waterloo” the readers were reassured that the panorama contained “nothing of a theatrical exhibition, so that no religious scruples need prevent any from visiting it.”
Advertisement for “Sinclair’s Grand Peristrephic or Moving Panorama of the Battle of Waterloo, St. Helena,” at the Mechanics Hall in Panoramas clipping file, NYPL


Teacher’s Guide

Across the Sea of Time: A Story of New York and the World (1994)
Courtesy of the IMAX Corporation.
[See larger image]

Souvenir handbooks were printed for many of these panoramas. They provided historical background on the depicted nations, reproductions of the panoramas and are in many respects the 18th and 19th century equivalents of today’s educational study guides for Imax films such as Across the Sea of Time.

The promise of the panorama as an “experience” or an “effect” persists in advertisements for contemporary Imax films. For example, in the brochure for the Imax release Extreme, we are told that “In nature’s most volatile year, as its forces in the oceans and mountains unleashed new levels of power…the world’s top extreme athletes finally found what they had been searching for. Are you ready for the experience?” (Imax Extreme [John Long, 1999] brochure.)

Extreme Imax
Courtesy of the IMAX Corporation.

This sense of us having little control over the experience once we’ve bought our ticket and are ensconced in the Imax theater is seen in numerous trailers for Imax technology, which struggle as much to convey the scale of the image as they do to convey the overall “effect” of “feeling” Imax.

"Inside an Imax Theater"
Courtesy of the IMAX Corporation.
Imax, Liberty Science Center
Courtesy of the IMAX Corporation.

Imax sensation is often represented through the use of close-ups of the human face upon which is inscribed the physiological essence of the experience, the “oh wow” effect seen in this Imax poster for the Liberty Science Center in New York and in reactions in this technical description of the inside of an Imax theater, roughly half of whom are pointing up at the screen in amazement at the illusion.


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