Smell-o-vision might be making a comeback — in VR?

Smell-o-vision was a bizarre Hollywood miscue of the 1950s that lives on in infamy, but now researchers want to bring it back for VR. Will It work?
John Loeffler
Woman using a VR headset
Woman using a VR headset


Usually, when someone pitches a revival of smell-o-vision, you'd be forgiven if you imagined a 1950s American movie theater playing some B-movie about monsters destroying a small town while theater workers pump perfumed air into the auditorium, but the latest attempt at incorporating smell into interactive entertainment isn't nearly as crude as efforts that have come before.

Researchers at the City University of Hong Kong, Beihang University in China, and elsewhere have developed a new approach to bringing olfactory sensations to the latest entertainment, only this time, they are looking to enhance the VR experience with a new wireless, wearable device that can provide complementary aroma to match the virtual world you might be inhabiting.

"Recent advances in virtual reality (VR) technologies accelerate the creation of a flawless 3D virtual world to provide [a] frontier social platform for human[s]," the researchers, writing in a paper published in Nature Communication, said. "Equally important to traditional visual, auditory and tactile sensations, olfaction exerts both physiological and psychological influences on humans."

It's well-established that smell is one of the senses most deeply tied to our memory, and it would make sense that those looking to immerse a user in a virtual world would eventually have to get around to creating a smell-scape of sorts in order for the user to make-believe that what they are seeing is real.

"Olfaction plays a significant role in human perceptual experiences," the researchers write, "which is equally important to visual and auditory feedbacks. As one of the typical five senses, olfaction has shown a crucial influence in shaping human lives, as most aspects of daily life [are] associated with olfaction coming from manmade materials, industry, transport, household products, etc."

Does smell-o-vision have a chance with modern audiences?

While it might be tempting to impune the attempt to create a scent-generating wearable for virtual reality immersion, it's not really that dumb an idea when you think about it.

VR is all about plunging you deep into a virtual space that by virtue of the technology can seem very real to anyone who has tried it, and along with hearing and haptic touch feedback, having an olfactory experience in VR would certainly add a new layer of immersion, if it can shake the fetters of its more silly past attempts.

Still, given the power of VR to craft powerful, never-before-experienced sensations for users, there is always room for improvement. After all, what good is there in creating a virtual rose bush if there's no way to smell the roses?

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