Display at county fair gives viewer a close encounter with extraterrestrials.

It was in the 1950s that Ed Titus first saw a glimpse of the future in a Miami theater.

Joining others in a darkened movie house, he donned some specially made 3-D glasses and watched a jungle film where spears seemed to jump out of the screen at him.

Years later, he would sit in front of a television screen while visiting the Los Angeles County Fair wearing a $300 headset and watching space extraterrestrials float within grabbing distance.

"It looked like it was going to hit you in the head. Back then you had to concentrate. This jumps out at you," said Titus of Fallbrook.

Titus was just another face in the crowd that wandered into the fair's Virtual Worlds exhibit in Building 7A to gawk at holograms, 3-D television and the latest rage in visual technology – virtual reality.

The advancement of computer virtual reality has taken off in recent years. Its uses have found their way into science, allowing biochemists to study molecular structure, and proven a boon in the entertainment field.

Virtual reality, based on three-dimensional computer graphics technology, is the wave of the future, maintains Jeff Allen of Interactive Entertainment based in Playa Del Rey.

Unlike three-dimensional characters and holograms – which are forms of virtual images – the technology surrounding virtual reality allows users to interact and immerse themselves into computerized illusions with the use of special headsets and joysticks hooked up to the software.

Interactive Entertainment made its debut at the Los Angeles County Fair this year with an exhibit complete with virtual reality software, 3-D television and hologram displays.

Recently, fairgoers were seen mingling around the exhibit with the $300 headsets viewing 3-D images of extraterrestrial life, interacting with a roller coaster ride and inspecting the design of a house via personal computer.

"It took decades to bring it to fruition," said Jeff Allen, referring to the technology that was on display and now is available to consumers.

Allen, a one-time rock concert promoter, fell into the business of virtual reality by way of holograms – a technique that uses lasers to create 3-D images.

Holograms were first discovered in 1947 by the Hungarian physicists, Dennis Gabor, who was attempting to improve the electron microscope. But Gabor was unable to develop the concept due to inadequate light sources. Finally, the invention of the laser paved the way for creation of these virtual images.

"The first principle most people forget is how to see, said Allen, who used an example of light reflecting off a chair.

"A laser captures the light from fixtures and plays it back."

Nowadays, Allen tours the fair and convention circuits showing off his hologram exhibits along with computer-created worlds and space fantasies.

Rosanna Cambron, a special education teacher from Downey, was one of the curious who immersed herself in a tour of the solar system through a computer screen.

"It's kind of neat, but in other ways it's kind of scary," she said.

Cambron was particularly concerned about certain types of virtual reality programs and its effects on youths.

"A lot of it depends on how it is used. I think it's real positive as long it's not used for profit," she said.

Rather than commercialism, Cambron favors the technology's education benefit.

Such benefits are already at work. Researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have created virtual reality software that allows scientists to explore molecular layout and help pinpoint laser beams on cancerous tumors during radiation therapy.

Other practical uses include architectural design. With the virtual reality concept, architects can view the inside of a computer-generated house, room by room, and determine what enhancements can be made before the structure is ever built.

But there is a cost to the technology.

A hi-tech computerized headset, normally used by researchers, can cost as much as $75,000. These headsets can be used without the benefit of computer hardware. All that is required is a ceiling as the screen with the software inside the headset creating the images.

But, Allen said, the cost can come down if a person has his own personal computer. The software and smaller head sets can run as low as $350.

The adaptation of virtual reality for scientific use is common among researchers. Yet, the entertainment industry is reaping benefits as well.

Already, the movie industry has focused on this phenomenon with such movies as "The Terminal Man," a virtual-reality thriller and Oliver Stone's television miniseries "Wild Palms."

The current trend involves the development of virtual reality parks, a project that Allen is pursuing.

The concept involves a site where computers and pods will be constructed, allowing consumers to roam through fantasy worlds.

Another mass media use that is available but costly will be holographic movies using the virtual reality concept of movie goers being able to interact with 3-D actors, according to Allen.

This technology, however, will far exceed the eight-digit figures that movie makers generally spend on films, he added.

And these are just some of the projects that are being kicked around. There is still the future.

"It's wide open," Allen said.