How Real-Life Sensations in Virtual Reality Could Deepen the Experience

Smells, pain, and even the threat of actually dying are all on the table

  • Virtual reality is getting more immersive thanks to new technologies that provide a sense of touch and smell. 
  • A new VFR headset will supposedly blow up if you lose a game. 
  • Researchers recently published a paper describing how smell could be used for virtual wine tastings.
Someone in a wheel chair sitting at a desk wearing a virtual reality headset.

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Your experiences in virtual reality could soon get much more lifelike. 

Palmer Luckey, sometimes credited with creating modern virtual reality, claims to have built a VR headset that will kill the user if they die in the game they're playing. It's part of a growing number of gadgets intended to extend the VR experience into the physical realm. 

"VR systems are already full of feedback, but they're largely limited to audio and visual channels," Danny Parks, the vice president of technology of the VR firm Trigger XR, told Lifewire in an email interview. "You can move your head and see your perspective change or press a button and hear a new sound."

Too Real? 

VR gear manufacturers constantly strive to make the virtual experience more realistic, but some might say that Luckey is taking things too far with his latest project. Luckey gained fame for selling VR headset manufacturer Oculus, a company he sold to Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion.

It will probably be some time before we see something that fundamentally changes the way we feel things in virtual environments.

Luckey shows off a VR headset containing three explosives on his blog. He wrote in a post that the headset explodes if you lose the VR game you are playing. 

"The idea of tying your real life to your virtual avatar has always fascinated me—you instantly raise the stakes to the maximum level and force people to fundamentally rethink how they interact with the virtual world and the players inside it," Luckey wrote. "Pumped-up graphics might make a game look more real, but only the threat of serious consequences can make a game feel real to you and every other person in the game."

Feeling VR

Luckey said he has no plans to make a commercial version of the deadly VR headset, but many other products could soon be available to make VR experiences more realistic. One hot area is called 'haptic feedback,' in which the sense of touch is used to make VR more realistic. 

"There are several systems that generate ultrasonic fields to simulate touch, and others that use gloves or vibration vests to provide mechanical feedback," Parks said. "It will probably be some time before we see something that fundamentally changes the way we feel things in virtual environments."

Two people wearing HaptX gloves and other VR gear during a demonstration.


You can buy haptic feedback gloves now, but they are bulky and expensive. For example, HaptX makes haptic gloves that cost $4,500. 

To make things even more realistic in VR, there's even a full-body suit available, called Teslasuit, that simulates forces on your body. So, for example, if you've been shot in a VR game, the suit will register the hit and translate it into pressure on your body.

Lucas Rodriguez San Pedro, the chief technical officer of enterprise VR platform provider Immerse, said in an email interview with Lifewire that haptic gadgets can be useful training. He said the real-life feedback, such as that provided by haptic gloves, or even full-body haptic suits, can help properly simulate real-life conditions when operating machinery. 

"Traditional visual-only VR interactions can provide a high level of fidelity in simulating the experience," he added. "But without the physical feedback, it can lead to unrealistic interactions."

Someone wearing a VR headset and gloves while their virtual actions are displayed on a screen nearby.

XR Expo / Unsplash

Your nose might also get its own VR sensors to let you smell your way through the metaverse. There are VR headset attachments under development that can emit scent, water, and heat, Mike Buob, the vice president of experience and innovation at technology firm Sogeti, said via email. 

"For example, a VR headset used to train insurance adjusters to assess property damage can simulate the smell of a fire-damaged home, allowing for more immersive—and useful—training sessions to prepare the adjuster for real-life scenarios," he added. 

Virtual smells could be fun as well. Swedish researchers recently published a paper describing how smells could add realism to a wine-tasting game. In the game, the participant moves in a virtual wine cellar, picking up virtual wine glasses containing different types of wine and guessing the aromas. The small scent machine is attached to the VR system's controller, and when the player lifts the glass, it releases a scent.

"In the same way that a normal computer game becomes more difficult the better the player becomes; the scent game can also challenge players who already have a sensitive nose," Jonas Olofsson, one of the paper's author's said in a news release. "This means that the scent machine can even be used to train wine tasters or perfumers."

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