AR / VR, News, Technology

Smelling in Virtual Reality Now Possible with ‘Olfactometer’

Abhinav Raj

Abhinav Raj, Writer

The latest development in virtual reality (VR) takes immersion up a notch by allowing users to ‘smell’ their virtual stimuli with a specialized ‘odor’ machine.

Researchers at Stockholm and Malmö University have pushed the frontiers of what can be made possible in virtual environments of the future. 

A new paper published by the research group known as the ‘Sensory Cognitive Interaction Laboratory’ in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies describes a compact and low-cost ‘olfactometer’ which can be used with a conventional VR system to produce olfactory stimuli—or in other words, introduce a sense of smell in virtual environments, making them more immersive than ever before. 

The engineers have utilized what is known as a ‘stepless valve’ to control the control and output of scents and their respective magnitude or intensity. This scent is channeled through an opening on a VR hand controller, producing a vivid and distinguishable scent of the odorous object in the virtual environment. The chambered design allows for the blending of various scents as well. 

This novel system of odour stimuli delivery was tested in a ‘gamified’ experiment wherein participants were asked to identify the aroma of various labels of wines relying on their sense of smell and vision. The experiment was met with remarkable success as novice users were able to adapt to the mechanism of experiencing olfactory stimulation. 

Olfactory stimuli could help immersion in many therapeutic applications of VR. (Image: Eren Li on Pexels)

The olfactory device presents a plethora of fascinating applications in not just entertainment, but also the healthcare industry. The research lead Jonas Olofsson discusses the possibility of leveraging the novel technology to help patients of COVID-19 with an impaired sense of smell. 

“For those who, for example, lost their sense of smell after COVID-19 or for other reasons, the new technology can mean an opportunity to regain their sense of smell with the help of game-based training,” commented Olofsson. 

Needless to say, a large range of therapeutic applications of the technology can be reasonably foreseen. Popular applications like Calm and Headspace that help users alleviate anxiety can leverage the technology by designing an application for VR systems aimed at providing levels of immersion never seen (or smelled) before. 

There is a sizable market for the application of the technology in the video game industry too. 

Open-world and sandbox video games can provide users with significantly greater immersive experiences by adding olfactory stimulations. This could mean experiencing the musky smell of a swamp while navigating through a forested wetland, the strong incense of candlesticks as the character rests in a medieval inn or the characteristic earthy petrichor of a grassy field damped down by the rain. 

As we enter a new age increasingly defined by the technological tools at our disposal, VR will have a role to play in providing unique, immersive experiences unrivaled by other digital interfaces. 

How do you think VR technology will progress to make virtual environments more immersive? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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