Olfactory Engineering: The Future Of Multisensory VR Could Be Scent-Based
OVR Technology CEO Aaron Wisniewski provides fascinating insights into the world of olfactory engineering.
We use all of our senses to understand and interpret the world around us. Sensory input— sight, sound, smell, taste and touch— power our most instinctive reactions to the context of our environment. When any one of these does not match up with the others, we begin to subconsciously poke holes in our surroundings, including digital worlds. Olfactory engineering is the design of scents, and has some unlikely use cases in VR.
Aaron Wisniewski, CEO of OVR Technology, has introduced the Architecture of Scent (AOS) to bring olfaction to VR through hardware, software, and “scentware” components. After two and a half years of development, the company’s primary use cases are in healthcare, training and education, with an eye towards gaming and immersive experiences for the consumer audience.
“VR allows you to do things that are too dangerous, expensive or ludicrous to do in real life,” said Wisniewski. It’s for these reasons the US military is actively looking at immersive technology as a combat training tool.
When it comes to memory, scent in particular has a powerful effect on recall. “The more senses we include, the more our brains and bodies understand it as a genuine experience and the more likely we are to recall it in a high pressure experience,” he said. High-stress military scenarios can demand a range of olfaction that include garbage, rotting flesh, diesel fuel and gunpowder. Even without bullets flying, loud explosions, or chaotic commotion, these scents can effectively immerse soldiers in a wide variety of virtual environments.
Some hazards, on the other hand, can only be realized via scent. Trained firefighters, for example, can distinguish between active, fuel powered, and extinguished fire smoke.
Gaming & Virtual Worlds
No doubt the potential benefits to combat training listed above would translate seamlessly to FPS (first-person shooter) gaming, such as the smell of gunpower left from a recent firefight.
Social worlds could also benefit from the comforts that scent-based immersion can bring. The age old fire pit in AltspaceVR, fopr example, has become a symbol of storytelling, history, and social gatherings for many veteran users. A mixed aroma of coal, soft burning flames, pine needles, and dry wood is strongly linked to warm memories for many virtual adventurers.
The way OVR Technology’s software is designed opens up huge potential for olfactory engineering to become ingrained in the world-building pipeline. Scents can be proximal based or triggered by a series of geometries that include spheres, cones, and waves that all behave differently.
“The campfire in VR might be emitting a particle system, and that would trigger the ION to trigger the scent,” said Wisniewski, indicating that the ability to engineer sensory nuance has been central to their API; the ION is the device used to disperse scents during an immersive experience.
Personally, I find that one of the biggest indicators of the uncanny valley in digital spaces is the limited concept of space and time. As olfactory programming becomes more available to game designers and world builders, it is likely to become synonymous with virtual design.
It has also been interesting to discuss the shift in perception of what is accepted as ‘real’ or ‘normal’ in older and younger generations. For those on the former range, VR can come across as foreign or unusual. The latter audience, however, is highly accustomed to digital experiences and therefore more comfortable with the concept of virtual environments.
As the VR industry gets a whiff of this new technology, it may attract a wider audience of users who feel more comfortable in hyper-realistic virtual settings enhanced by scent-based immersion.
Olfactory engineering doesn’t just apply to virtual worlds. Retail already makes use of scent-based immersion technology, alongside sound and visual appeal, to affect mood and improve the consumer experience. Smell is incredibly important to how we analyze our situations, and the actions that result. While AR retail is still in its relative infancy, and gaining traction in VR, there’s no saying that olfactory engineering will be for HMDs only. In the near future we may see similar devices, such as the ION (shown above), evolve for use with mobile devices and PCs.
The potential applications of olfactory engineering are nearly endless, whether it in narrative design, location-based entertainment, or healthcare. Scents are capable of permanently marking significant moments of our life. Its scaled adoption into virtual designs is sure to take form in even more applications than we could possibly imagine today, including the ability to gain a better understanding of the way we interpret the world through olfaction.
The Technology of Olfactory Engineering
According to Wisniewski, olfactory engineering is two parts science, and one part art. Any different odour can be made up of thousands of molecules. Accurately capturing scents often means going to the place of origin, sampling the air and ingredients, teasing out its different components, and then replicating scents in the lab; one geographical area could mean dozens to hundreds of tests. “When we get the scientific part, it tells us what’s in there, but not how much,” said Wisniewski.
Sampling in Vermont, where the forest has a sweeter, sappier scent.
OVR Technology is also designed to recreate complex sensory environments, rather than just one scent at a time. In order to achieve this, they had to overcome the challenge of finding a scent that could be activated instantaneously before dissapating almost immediately. “We were able to overcome it by only releasing the amount of odor molecules, just to stimulate the scent but no more,” he said. Here’s a fun fact! Humans aren’t very good at directionally smelling, so concerns about 360 scent design aren’t necessarily a point of friction.
Focusing on enterprise applications first, Wisniewski hopes that the relationship between scent and VR will become as ubiquitous as television and color. “Our goal is not to transfer people into the virtual world, it’s that by improving the virtual world that we can improve the real world in the process,” he said.
As we learn more about the way we perceive environments, and how to simulate this through multisensory design, immersive technologies potential will only continue to expand. Particularly interesting is our relation of scents to memory recall— there may be a not so distant future where our perception of what is reality will begin to change just as subtly as the nuances engineered into olfactory design.
Image Credit: OVR Technology