Virtual reality already allows you to immerse yourself in the virtual world with sight and sound. Startup OVR (Olfactory Virtual Reality) Technology is adding one more sense to the VR world: scent. We talked to OVR’s CEO, Aaron Wisniewsk, to find out more about this innovation, the power of scent, and the future of virtual reality.
Tomorrow’s World Today (TWT): What is the science behind scent and perception? How does this improve virtual reality?
Aaron Wisniewski, OVR Technologies (AW): Scent is this invisible force that affects our everyday actions and emotions and influences our mood, purchasing behaviors, and even our choice of romantic partners. It is powerful, critical…and complex—and it’s the only one of our senses directly linked to the limbic system of the brain, which is responsible for memory and emotion. In fact, it’s widely believed that as many as 70 percent of memories triggered throughout the day are due to our sense of smell.
Scent’s role in emotion, memory, cognition, and behavior makes it an imperative aspect of an effective VR experience, both as a powerful driver of presence and immersion as well as to cue our mood and memories. One of our content partners describes olfactory virtual reality as “one of the greatest storytelling tools that has ever been invented.” Scent makes experiences in VR richer. And when you’re fully immersed in a virtual environment, the possibilities of total engagement are unlocked.
TWT: What is the technology behind OVR’s smell activation? How is it manufactured/created?
(AW): The sensory world around us is complex—trillions upon trillions of odor molecules surround us in a chaotic soup that has never been successfully reproduced. In order to create a technology solution that produces and transmits odor successfully, we looked to nature for inspiration and developed three intersecting components:
- Hardware: Our ION device is a lightweight, wireless microtechnology that fits most HMDs and releases the precise amount of scent at the right moment from a scent cartridge—it’s fine-tuned down to the part per million and millisecond. Scent is only present when desired and is immediately gone when not. It is able to do this without using any heat or fans through the activation of piezoelectrics.
- Software: Our software is able to understand the complex geometries of the virtual world and release the correct scent based on the user’s actions and their location. It can be embedded into most virtual content.
- Scentware: Through analytical chemistry and sensory expertise, we developed a system to capture, catalog, and recreate the aromatic world, one scent at a time. All of our scents are developed in-house in our scentware laboratory and are water-based and IFRA-certified.
TWT: How does OVR decide which scents are used? When in use, is the scent controlled by the medical professional or the specific program?
AW: We work with our content partners to determine the outcomes and goals needed in the VR experience. We then use our expertise to determine the best scents to produce the outcome or feeling. Think about it like a sound engineer assisting to develop the correct components to elicit the right feelings. When we go to create those scents, authenticity is of utmost importance, because our intention is to make the virtual world feel as genuine as the real world.
Once the experience has been created, scent behaves just like it does in the real world. As you move through and interact with the virtual world, your behavior is what triggers the release of scent. It’s completely immersive and interactive. For example, in one of our experiences you are at a campsite. As you start to roast marshmallows, the scent releases as it would in the natural world. When you put the marshmallows down or move away from them, the scent decreases.
TWT: There are many applications of virtual reality, but what industries stand to benefit the most from the inclusion of scent and why?
AW: We believe nearly all virtual experiences will benefit from scent in meaningful and measurable ways. We focus on three core areas: health, education, arts & entertainment. Even within these areas, there’s often crossover.
The type of scent and how it’s used may vary from application to application. In a therapeutic setting, scent may be used either as a memory trigger to help someone with PTSD revisit and reprocess difficult memories or as a way to soothe stress and anxiety associated with everyday life. In an entertainment application scent may be used to draw someone deeper into the narrative and elicit a deep emotional response.
TWT: What are some examples of how people can use and are using OVR?
AW: Skip Rizzo at the University of Southern California has developed a program called “Bravemind” for veterans suffering from PTSD. He understands the power of olfaction in this treatment. PTSD affects up to 20 percent of combat veterans and every single day; a staggering 21 veterans die from suicide as a result.
The University of Vermont Medical Center, with whom we partnered, studies how olfactory virtual reality affects pain, stress, and anxiety in their clinical psychiatry patients.
We help in substance use disorder clinics such as Ascendant New York where we help their patients engage in relaxation. A big issue is when patients want to leave their program against medical advice due to an intense craving. OVR helps disrupt the fight-or-flight response and provides the relief patients need to continue engaging with their therapy.
OVR can also be used in the military and organizations that include people in high-risk occupations for health or training, like firefighters, police, and EMTs. OVR can help individuals train for dangerous, traumatic situations where the influence of scent on memory allows for greater retention and more effective memory recall during high-stress, high-risk real-life situations.
TWT: In November 2021, OVR announced the release of the INHALE Wellness Platform, an immersive VR experience designed to promote relaxation and general well-being. How does scent improve relaxation and general well-being? What types of scents can people use to improve their wellness?
AW: There is a wealth of neuroscientific evidence on the role that sensory activation plays in our brain for general well-being, including stimulation of the olfactory bulb. Studies show that olfactory-visual stimulation positively affects emotion and memory, which can be an important aid and support in the process of mitigating the negative effects of psychological and social issues, such as stress, to enhance wellbeing.
Our INHALE Wellness Platform builds on this body of research with an experience that places users in an immersive, three-dimensional environment and simulates a relaxing and tranquil setting. As users interact with the virtual environment, corresponding scents are released, including tropical beaches, fresh-cut grass, northern pine forest, Atlantic ocean breeze, wildflower fields, and lush woodlands. Users also enjoy beautiful nature scenes and guided meditations.
TWT: Who is OVR currently available through, and are there any plans to make scent VR available to the general consumer?
AW: OVR is not only available to medical providers; we are a solutions-based company providing resources to other businesses. Although we are currently only available for larger enterprise and medical deployments, it is not through any specific channels.
We are constantly tracking what is happening in the VR/AR/XR market to determine where we can provide the most benefit. Scent is a powerful tool to create immersive experiences for everyone and we see a future where every VR experience includes the olfactory component.
TWT: In your opinion, what does the future of virtual reality look like?
AW: I see, and smell, a future where the virtual world is as rich, meaningful, and authentic as the real one and where olfaction is the standard for VR experience globally.
I prefer not to think about VR as just a piece of technology that you hold in your hand, but rather a complete other world existing alongside our own. What makes the virtual world unique from the real one is that within it, anything is possible. We want this world of infinite possibilities to benefit humanity and not be an escape or some sort of a dystopian underworld. We envision universal access to the virtual world where we will get healthcare when we’re sick, where we will go to school and receive our education, where we can learn new job skills to expand our economic opportunities. We’ll interact with each other in a meaningful way even if we are worlds apart and of course, in the virtual world we won’t just watch our entertainment, we’ll participate in it.
At OVR Technology, we are one of the many architects constructing this virtual world and we are doing it with intention. Just like a pencil, a house, or even the internet, how it’s used is a result of how it’s built. By elegantly incorporating our oldest, most primal sense, we can build a virtual world as rich, meaningful, and authentic as our own to realize the true potential of virtual reality.
TWT: For one last question, what’s your favorite smell offered by OVR?
AW: The scent of freshly fallen snow, in particular, has always stood out to me.