What If You Could Smell in VR?

Virtual reality is all about immersion, but there are some limits to what it can do.

Sure, there are treadmills out there to simulate motion.

And there are even concepts out there that are trying to figure out a haptic touch in VR.

But no one is really tackling the replication of smells in a virtual reality environment – at least until now.

In what could be the weirdest or coolest addition to the VR story, depending on your perspective, experiments conducted by scientists in Malaysia have found that smells can be recreated via electronic means.

Just in case you wanted to “smell” the world of Fallout 4 or Resident Evil 7, this technology will, in theory, allow programmers to create even further ambiance by designating certain odors. It’s all a bit crazy sounding but, then again, most of what we do now would have sounded the same a decade ago.

Further, it isn’t something just for VR but could also have applications for augmented reality as well.

One of the scientists that conducted the experiment, Adrian Cheok, said: “It’s not just about the smell…It is part of a whole, integrated virtual reality or augmented reality. So, for example, you could have a virtual dinner with your friend through the internet. You can see them in 3D and also share a glass of wine together.”

The experiment looked specifically at how humans smell things and then went from there in creating simulated odors. The team was able to recreate 10 different odors including “fruity, woody, and minty” according to WCRB TV.

Cheok expanded upon his vision for the technology when he talked about creating a “virtual nose” that could be used to remotely inspect factories and storage facilities “similar to those used in food-processing plants.”

“This stage was more exploratory…The next stage is to produce it in a more controlled manner, and this will allow for people to develop software and products to generate electric smell,” Cheok said.

These types of applications are decades down the road but Cheok was fairly optimistic when it came to applying this tech to consumer entertainment like movies and video games. According to WCRB TV, Cheok thinks you could see this type of tech make its way into consumer-grade applications within the next 15 years.

Some skeptics of the study think that it doesn’t account for bias or the fact that people may be smelling something that isn’t there. This is because, when primed, the brain might make up a smell if it is told something is there.

Joel Mainland of Monell Chemical Senses Center in Pennsylvania describes it as, “I can give you an empty jar to sniff when you don’t have anything up your nose, and sometimes you would report a faint odor…If you are asking someone if something smells, they have a strong bias to say yes even where there is no odor.”

When you think about immersion in VR, the scent and smell might not be on the top of your list of must-have features but it is cool to know that it could be a possibility in the future.

About The Author

Kehl Bayern Kehl Bayern has over a decade of experience in online media and publishing. He is the author of science fiction thriller Animus Proxy. He is based in Boston, Massachusetts and studied politics at the University of Virginia and, later, Harvard University for graduate school. He spends much of his time traveling up and down the east coast of the United States. You can follow him on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

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