May 22, 2021 - Technology

The real smell of virtual reality

A storm strikes Samoa in "Shifting Homes."
A storm strikes Samoa in "Shifting Homes." Not pictured: The very real smell of that fire. Credit: OVR Technology

The startup OVR Technology is incorporating smell into virtual reality and using it in a new program designed to allow people to experience the effects of climate change.

Why it matters: VR can already simulate sight, sound and a sense of movement, but adding smell can help stimulate memories and emotional experiences, making virtual reality all the more real.

How it works: A device called the ION, which contains vials of different scents, is attached to a VR headset.

  • When a user interacts with an object in virtual reality connected to one of those scents — say, a rose — a tiny electric charge releases the matching fragrance.
  • "Smell is the factor that can create a truly human experience in virtual reality," says OVR CEO Aaron Wisniewski, who trained as a scent expert before co-founding the company.

What's happening: OVR has worked with a pair of Australian artists to create a climate change-themed VR experience called "Shifting Homes" that will premiere at the Venice Biennale this weekend.

  • "Shifting Homes" puts the user on the Pacific island of Samoa, which is threatened by rising sea levels and storms worsened by climate change.
  • I tried it out at the Newlab in Brooklyn, a technology center for startups that includes OVR as a member. As the mayor of the Samoan village Poutasi narrated the story of his island, I could watch the gentle seas and smell the sandy beaches.
  • Later, as storms raged, I could smell the ozone from a lightning strike and the stench of smoke as a fire consumed the village, before rising seas submerged me beneath virtual water.

What they're saying: "Smell helps turn virtual reality into an empathy machine," says Wisniewski.

The bottom line: Technologists have tried to incorporate scents in TV and movies for decades, but the personalized, customizable platform of VR might finally be the right niche for a true Smell-O-Vision.

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