A truly immersive experience engages all the five senses: sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. The “three pillars” of XR- Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality are heavily focused on immersing audiences through their sense of vision. This is a huge part of how we take in the world around us, so it makes sense that this is so. The next most prominent focus is hearing. Many immersive experiences make use of binaural audio to simulate how we hear sounds that are coming at us from different distances and positions in space. Lastly, there is touch. I touched on this in depth in my last article on haptics; most VR experiences are paired with haptic feedback mechanisms in the form of controllers or gloves that enable users to really feel as if they are touching the virtual objects in front of them. These aspects of experience are all very easily digitally maneuverable and replicable in a virtual environment. Heck, we interact with virtual visuals and sounds every day through our smartphones!
Taste and smell are a bit more involved. As a result, there is not a lot of funding occurring in researching their applications in XR. For today, I’ll be focusing on our sense of smell and how it’s shown to be highly applicable in the immersive space. First of all, it is highly linked with memory and emotion, which are both extremely important in building realistic, memorable, and effective experiences. In fact, it is so greatly intertwined with memory, that researchers are testing the capabilities of Olfactory VR experiences in treatment of PTSD, using systematic desensitization (Herz). As the head researcher states, “the neutralization of odor triggers is particularly relevant for treating PTSD”. As the patient is guided through a VR environment built to be relevant to their specific trauma, they are exposed to a smell similar to the one associated with this trauma again and again until they are able to relax fully in the presence of the trigger.
Moreover, studies have been conducted on the overall sense of immersion and embodiment participants experience in VR experiences that are paired with smell. A study done by CSIRO Human Ethics Committee in conjunction with UT Sydney looked into the qualitative and quantitative effects of Olfactory VR in a play environment. Qualitative results showed that embodiment, immersion, and presence are significantly increased with the addition of scent into players’ VR experiences. Quantitative results in the form of physiological measurements (heart rate, body temperature and skin electrodermal activity) showed a greater sense of spatial awareness in the VR world (Archer).
Some startups have taken on the challenge of integrating olfactory VR into the current XR market. Aaron Wisniewski is CEO of OVR Technology, which is working on the Architecture of Scent (AOS) to “bring olfaction to VR through hardware, software, and ‘scentware’ components” (McKinnon). They have been working on their product for two and half years and are looking at use cases in the fields of healthcare, training, and education. They hope to eventually break into the gaming space as well, targeting a more consumer audience.