Virtual reality promises to someday transport humans into other worlds, scents and all. Here’s how the technology of virtual smells work, and what such odiferous “VR smells” could mean for our noses and the future.
When you watch a movie, you may not always be thinking “wow, I wish I could smell this.” That’s because there hasn’t yet been a mainstream technology that adds virtual smell into the mix along with the sights and sounds we’re so accustomed to.
But what if when watching Forrest Gump, you could actually smell that “life is like a box of chocolates”, or experience the raw fishiness of Bubba Gump shrimp? What if the lyrics of “Miss American Pie” were accompanied by the scent of fresh pastries? What if when playing Candy Crush Saga, the candies were more than just colors and shapes?
It may seem odd, but this kind of technology — digital scent technology, to be precise — is not a new phenomenon. The means already exist to give your nose a show — but is your nose ready?
Smell-O-Vision: A brief history
65 years. That’s how much time has passed since the first virtual smell was invented, though it wasn’t very virtual: In 1950, inventor Hans Laube’s “Smell-O-Vision” allowed movie-goers to experience The Scent of Mystery, while competitor Charles’ Weiss’ “AromaRama” treated people to the scents of China.
Both were clumsy, distracting, and poorly executed in terms of mechanics, and were thusly written off as gimmicky stunts.
Later on came another flop: The iSmell, in 1999. Despite its name, the product came not from Apple, but a startup called DigiScents that actually received $20 million in funding to produce a device filled with a database of scents, which could connect to your PC to sync scents with your activity.
It worked by indexing 128 primary odors, then coding and digitalizing thousands of combinations into digital files that upon opening, release from a smell cartridge. (This process, and its variations, sums up how virtual smell works in general).
The problem? Despite VC interest, the public just wasn’t into it. In 2001 when the product prototype launched, it became apparent that while nice, it wasn’t useful enough to actually sell.
The Nose Knows: new virtual smell developments
There have been numerous, laudable attempts to make VR smells not just a virtual reality, but a usable and popular one.
Trisenx delivered Internet-powered scents and tastes, but also failed to gain momentum; Japan’s “Koari Web” let users smell computer images in a 2004 experiment; another Japanese product called the Thanko P@d Aroma Generator offered smell cartridges in a USB for $69.00 in 2005, but is no longer available.
As for today, there is promise of future success in the virtual smell department:
• Japanese researchers have created a TV that releases pixel-specific scents, matching odors to specific spots with fans and oils. (Japanese researchers have in the past projected to have a 3D TV complete with scent and touch commercially available by 2020)
• Scentcom is a startup company that specializes in cutting edge digital scent technology
• Aromajoin’s “Aroma Shooters” use solid scent cartridges to release highly focused smells for advertisers, 4D theaters, and more
• FeelReal: A wearable, VR scented headset, powered by fans, a water mister and odor generator, that matches scents with your game or movie.
• Scentee: A plugin scent cartridge for your smartphone that lets you send smells to your contacts, available for $69.
To smell or not to smell?
It’s clear that not only is virtual smell possible, but tried, tested, and fairly advanced.
There are several issues that may be holding this age-old concept back from success: one is that the coding and manufacturing is complicated, and another is that smell cartridges can be expensive to continually replace.
It could also be that we simply value our noses less than our eyes and ears, or are resistant to olfactory immersion for other reasons. Whatever the case, it will remain to be seen (or rather, smelt) whether newer products will catch on, or repeat the fate of their predecessors.