VR System Tricks User into Feeling Hot or Cold by Hacking Your Nose

Smells play a role in how we sense temperature.
Fabienne Lang

VR systems are becoming more and more a part of people's lives, and what they can do nowadays is already impressive. They allow you to visually experience a virtual world and to touch and feel what's also happening.

Now, a team of researchers from the University of Chicago has also added another dimension to VR systems: temperature. 

The team has found a way for the user to experience temperature changes from hot to cold and back again through our sense of smell. Talk about combining a number of different senses!


Virtual Reality taken to another level

The VR system developed by the University of Chicago researchers is power efficient and impressive. The team found a method of essentially hacking into your face, more specifically your nose, in order to create hot and cold temperatures that you can feel just by breathing.

The team uses specific chemicals to access the trigeminal nerve in your nose, which connects your brain to most of your face. For instance, when you smell peppermint the sensation it gives you in a specific part of your face is coolness, that's due to the menthol in the peppermint that triggers a receptor in your trigeminal nerve. The opposite can be said of hot peppers.

VR System Tricks User into Feeling Hot or Cold by Hacking Your Nose
The VR smell system, Source: University of Chicago

And what the team figured out was by aerosolizing one of these smells into a chemical and then puffing it up to your nose, it could make you feel a temperature change. 

The trick was to not actually make the user smell anything, but just experience the temperature change. "The temperature sensation was largely localized to the face and definitely tied to breathing," first author Jas Brooks told IEEE Spectrum. "I didn’t smell anything, but I felt an increasing sense of warmth as though my face was being warmed by sunlight for a while."

Creating a cold sensation was trickier, but the team managed to also make this happen by using eucalyptol. "Both the warm/cool sensations we were able to elicit in VR were surprisingly immersive, but definitely not as intense as directly heating/cooling the air or skin," said the team. 

The team installed a smell delivery system to the VR headset, which weighs just over 100 grams including batteries. It uses only 0.25 W of power. Three vials of 1 mL of liquid last up to six hours of temperature changes, and the device can puff out the "smell" every six seconds

It'll certainly add another dimension to VR systems. The team is presenting their research on June 30 in a free only symposium, which you can watch here.