Why Smell Could Be the Future of VR

Sniff your way around a virtual world

Key Takeaways

  • Your trip through virtual reality could soon be enhanced by smell.
  • An art exhibit about climate change this month uses smell to make the experience more realistic.
  • Smell combined with VR could even have wellness applications, one company claims.
woman smelling herbs in a garden

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Get ready to smell things in virtual reality. 

A virtual reality climate change experience, set to debut at the 2021 Venice Biennale, is meant to simulate Samoa by interacting with the virtual environment and letting you smell local elements. It’s one of a growing number of technologies trying to leverage more of your senses while in VR. 

"The closer our virtual experiences are to our real ones, the more effective they are," Aaron Wisniewksi, CEO of OVR Technology, which makes the gear that produces the smell for the exhibit, said in an email interview. "We generally refer to that feeling—when the virtual world feels real—as presence. In order to maximize presence, we wanted to first understand where that feeling comes from in our everyday lives." 

Environmental Warnings Through VR

Samoa is a South Pacific country that’s threatened by rising sea levels. The exhibit, called "Shifting Homes," is described by its creators as an immersive virtual journey to one possible future faced by the island. It’s meant to warn of imminent climate change in the region by presenting a VR world of archaeological features and vanishing cultural histories. 

The team behind "Shifting Homes" worked with artist Daniel Stricker of DP Immersive to gather the scents of Samoa. OVR developed the scents "in the field" and used trained noses combined with analytical chemistry to identify all the aroma compounds in a particular area. Then, they used that information to rebuild those scents in their scentware laboratory in a concentrated, water-based form.

Visitors to the VR exhibit wear a device that pumps the smells in at just the right time. OVR says it translates VR movements and inputs into real-time scent output. The technology allows for 0.1 millisecond bursts of scent and can change between fragrances in 20 milliseconds. It’s controlled via Wi-Fi or USB and works with most virtual reality headsets. 

OVR isn’t the only company working on smells in VR, though. Feelreal’s sensory mask, for example, is designed to complement a VR experience with hundreds of unique aromas. 

The closer our virtual experiences are to our real ones, the more effective they are.

Another way of bringing smells into VR is at a location-based virtual reality entertainment center.  

DJ Smith, co-founder of virtual reality company The Glimpse Group, fondly recalls visiting a location where there was a VR recreation of the Ghostbusters movie. 

"At the climax of the experience, all of the participants shot their virtual lasers at an enormous Stay-Puft marshmallow man, and at that moment of the experience, the smell of burnt marshmallows was pumped into the room," Smith said in an email interview. "This subtle detail really completed the experience and was by far my favorite part."

Why Smell Is So Important

Smell combined with VR even could have wellness applications, OVR claims. The company sells a version of its scent gear that offers a variety of visually rich natural environments that users can explore while being led through guided meditations. These exercises link breathing with smells like Atlantic Ocean mist, wildflowers, pine forest, and damp earth "to help focus mind and body while providing joy and stress relief," Wisniewksi said.

Woman wearing Virtual Reality headset and headphones

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Scents are crucial to experiencing the world, cultural analyst Margaret J. King said in an email interview. Smell enhances memory because it’s part of the brainstem involved in survival, bypassing other brain centers that deal with rational cognition.  

"Just the faintest whiff of a perfume, for example, will recall the person who wears it, which is the reason I found out that I could never wear Chanel No. 5.," King added. "Why is this?  Because my husband’s mother wore that fragrance, causing him lots of confusing signals when I tried to wear it on our honeymoon. I had never thought about that before it happened to his brainstem."

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