Capability to Sniff & Adding Sense of Smell in VR

Virtual Reality, VR, Immersive Technology & Simulated Environment

Capability to Sniff & Adding Sense of Smell in VR

Sense of Smell in VR
The Olfactory VR System for Mice (Credit: Dombeck Laboratory)

Currently in virtual reality world, the three most popular senses used are the visual, followed by audio and third is the touch. But imagine if one day we are able to sniff the smell of the roses or hot, black coffee in the virtual environment. Great, isn’t it? However, one of the challenge in adding the smell in VR is because the smell is also need to be updated in real-time based on where the viewer is in the simulated environment. Even in reality, if you sit in static place, the scents can come and go as and when. Hence, the system must have the capability to upload the smell rapidly into the system.

Good news is recently there is some discovery has been made to include the sense of smell in VR as well. Recently, one university in Illinois, United States has discovered a way how to do it.

How the Smell in VR Works?

According to the researchers from Northwestern University, they are now able to add the element of sense in the VR. The experiment and study is led by the university’s associate professor, Daniel Dombeck. He is from neurobiology background.

Interestingly, Daniel and his team performed the experiment by using mice as the subject. Sound awesome since it is very seldom to hear people used animals to test the VR stuffs. They called it as “Smellovision” or the olfactory virtual reality system for mice. In their solution, whenever the mice is moving around, the system will also control the level of odor concentration dynamically.

How the Experiment Works?

At first, they put the mice in the virtual maze supplied with the visual and smell cues. As for the smell cues, they set up an airflow system that will pumped out several types of scents such as pine, sour and bubble gum. After the mice has navigate for a while, they shut off the visual part inside the virtual world.

The mice is now in total darkness. Now, the mice is only left with the scents or only the smell cue. Surprisingly, even being left with the sense of smell alone, the mice is able to sniff and move around or navigate normally in the maze like before. You can see how the mouse perceive the virtual world below….

Beside using the mouse, the researchers also performed the experiment on themselves. During the “virtual tour”, they hold up their nose on the small port that is attached to that airflow system. Even when they closed their eyes, they were still able to detect where they are in the virtual world. With a lot of practice, of course. From the experiment, they conclude that the brain can actually map its surroundings based on smells.

Interestingly, since the study is published, someone from law enforcement contacted Dombeck asking if this solution can be use to train the bomb-sniffing dog. Cool!!! Hope that we can hear another new development on it soon or when it can be commercialize to the public. For more info, you can read it at:
1) The Dombeck Laboratory site.
2) “An olfactory virtual reality system for mice” from Nature.com which they share the scientific study on it.
2) “Sniff Test: Study Incorporates Smell into Virtual Reality” from WTTW Chicago Tonight.
3) “Brain can navigate based solely on smells” from Northwestern Now.
4) “Brain Can Navigate Based Solely on Smells” from Neuroscience News.

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