Smellable VR is coming whether you want it or not

From Engadget - November 13, 2017

Augmenting theatrical performances with scent is not a new gimmick, just one that has repeatedly failed to catch on. In 1959, Aromarama technology made its debut with the film The Great Wall. This system was capable of distributing scents through a theater's air conditioning system and change smells every 90 seconds. The New York Times was not impressed, calling it a "stunt" in its scathing review.

"The artistic benefit of it is here demonstrated to be nil," NYT reviewer, Bosley Crowther seethed. "While odors are wafted through the theatre, as the picture is going on, more or less in the nature of certain odors you might expect to accompany certain scenes, the accuracy of these odors is capricious, to say the least, and the flow of sensations from the 'smell-track' is highly irregular."

Aromarama's lacklustre reception did not stop the introduction of a similar system, dubbed "Smell-O-Vision," a few weeks later for the release of the romantic mystery, Scent of Mystery. Unlike Aromarama, it used diffusers located under the auditorium's seats. "First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927)! Now they smell!" the movie's tagline read. Like its weeks-old predecessor, the public turned up its nose at Smell-O-Vision, relegating it to the annals of movie technology trivia.

Scenting movies made a brief comeback in 1981 when Director John Waters released Polyester, which used Odorama technology (read: scratch-and-sniff cards). It went over with audiences just slightly better than DigiScents' iSmell device did in 2001. That is, Odorama was never named one of the "25 Worst Products Ever" by PC World. The iSmell was a tabletop device that connected to PCs via USB and belched out one of its 128 scents when you visited specific websites like, say, iSmell bombed, and the swift public backlash meant the device never made it past the prototype stage.

But what a difference 16 years of technological advancement makes. VR headsets are becoming household items, whether they are run by phones or gaming systems. And as this medium becomes increasingly common, demands for more immersive experiences are sure to follow.

"The thing about VR is its ability to allow the user to feel he/she 'is there', a phenomenon we call 'presence,' Li explained. "We see greater influence of VR when users report higher levels of presence."

Li's research team at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore recently submitted a study for peer review which examines how VR can influence one's eating behavior with virtual food. "I ca not divulge too much details since the paper is under review," Li said, "but we found that adding the two senses [scent and taste] into the experience has an effect on human satiation."

By enhancing these experiences with scents and tastes, their therapeutic effects can be multiplied. For example, the smell of gunpowder might be used in treating certain cases of PTSD or lavender to create a calming effect. In the future, Li ventures, we could use VR to trick our brains into eating healthier, both for themselves and the planet.

"What if one day we are able to show you in VR, a piece of steak, with the smell and scent that goes along with it, and you cut it up and feel its tenderness, and you enjoy every bite of it?" he told Engadget. "But in real life, it's made of plant-based ingredients."

This is actually already a thing and it's called the Vocktail. Developed by Nimesha Ranasinghe and his team at the National University of Singapore, the Vocktail fools senses through the use of light, smell and "virtualized" taste, to make whatever is in the glass -- even tap water -- taste like, well, anything.

"Our approach is to augment the beverage flavor experience by overlaying external sensory stimuli," Ranasinghe told Engadget. "In this Vocktail we overlay color, taste, and smell sensations to create an adjustable flavor experience" which can be tuned to the user's specific preferences via a mobile app. "This also gives users to experimentally create new flavors," he continued. "Imagine you want to try a Mojito with a twist of chocolate or strawberry?"


Continue reading at Engadget »