Going back to the definition of immersive experience, we would suggest that it represented a holistic sense stimulation resulting in a shift of perceived reality. For much of technological advancement, the definition included only visual and audio stimuli. HaptX recently added sense of touch to VR, and taste is a little off the charts. But about sense of smell? Is virtual smell even possible?
Apparently, research is under way to transmit odors at long distances. Researchers in Malaysia have figured out the way to convey smell electrically on the principle of holism drawn from Reality technologies. In words of one of the researchers on the project, Adrian Cheok: ‘It’s not just about the smell. It is part of a whole, integrated virtual reality or augmented reality’. The research is an age-old attempt to introduce sense of smell into entertainment industry or, more recently, to video calls. It is new, fairly cutting-edge, and also not without its fierce critics.
The research is in experimental phase meaning that it’s still early to tell, but a lot of effort went into it. The research imagines smell as an electric impulse, and with a pair of electrodes up nasal cavities seek to evoke sensations of particular odors. The test subjects were able to distinguish some 10 different virtual smells, albeit with no way to control or predict them. Still early on in the development, the research, Cheok imagines, might result in kind of electronic noses controlled by AR or VR glasses. ‘the next stage is to produce it (virtual smell) in a more controlled manner, and this will allow for people to develop software and products to generate electric smell’.
‘So, for example, you could have a virtual dinner’ Cheok insists, ‘with your friends through the Internet’. You can see them in 3D and also share a glass of wine together’. But using virtual smell in in 3D video conversations is a long way down the road. Where the virtual odors might have a more immediate application is in entertainment. Movie theaters, for one, have a long history of trying to sneak smell into cinema experience. Everything from AromaRama to Smell-O-Vision has failed, while the FeelReal mask designed to spice VR gaming with some smells left a bitter taste.
Electric virtual smells as imagined by the Malaysian research could skip the roadblock its predecessors stumbled upon. In Cheok’s opinion, it doesn’t share the limitation of being molecularly-based. Electric odors could be switched and changed on the fly, rather than waiting for them to pass. ‘The problem is when you cut to the next scene, you don’t want to smell smoke (of previous car chase scene) anymore’.
The research, as is customary, has its critics too. Some of them point out the complexity of sense of smell whose receptors cannot be stimulated properly by a mono-faceted electrical input. Be it as it may, it’s worth a try. Should entertainment application succeed, it will be followed by virtual smell in video calls. After that, it may even be taken up by medicine to restore sense of smell to the impaired. Again, the digital smell technology is very much worth a try.