To many of us, the “metaverse” is an abstract and distant concept. However, though unimaginable before Covid-19, the last two years have brought us closer to this concept than ever before. We learned to connect with each other from the comfort of our homes, across space and time, through our screens. Now that we have overcome a psychological hurdle of virtual connection, and have the infrastructure and tools to build virtual environments, it’s time to consider the following:
Virtual space as we know it lacks ambiance. Therefore, it is less able to provide a sense of shared space. Scent gained new meaning over the past two years and many of us rediscovered the way it could shape a meal, a space, and even help us feel more connected. Today, unlike audio and visual information, scent is not digitally “transmissible”. As an increasing share of the population spends a significant amount of time interacting virtually, it becomes even more important to address the technological progress in smell, the value-add of scent to a virtual scenario, and why ethical considerations around olfactory experiences should be addressed sooner rather than later.
It’s a sign of science & technological progress
Smell is the last sense to become “machine-readable”. Our olfactory system has over 400 receptors to perceive millions of odors. Each odor can be composed of hundreds of molecules and each receptor can bind to many different molecules. Our brain analyzes the odor by the activation pattern of different combinations of receptors. This is a complex system and even more complex to study.
Our visual system on the other hand uses three receptors to see all the colors of the rainbow and image-recognition technology is on our phones, computers, and even our doorbells. The problem of image recognition was solved over a decade ago and is ubiquitous in a variety of consumer products and services today.
Computer scientists recently entered the scene of olfactory study and are using machine learning to not only teach computers to detect odors in a matter of seconds, but also to make neurological discoveries. For example, they are uncovering the process that allows us to focus on a smell that is important to us while blocking out the perception of all other odor molecules.
Labs at Monell Chemical Senses, Weizmann Institute of Science, Google Brain, and others, are working to further understand the way we perceive odors and even recreate the perception of an odor– essentially creating an RGB code or a digital olfactory code. This could allow us to minimize the raw materials needed to recreate olfactory information enabling us to “print” an unlimited number of scents from a finite amount of scent cartridges. Therefore, if you are sharing a virtual space with a friend in Tokyo, their scent equipment would know what you are smelling and could create the same olfactory experience for them in Tokyo without them having to house a library of hundreds of thousands of scents.
This technological progress in neuroscience, sensory science, software, and modeling is making strides to understand how we smell. However, for us to experience scents digitally, scent molecules (still) need to be physically dispersed. This brings forth another challenge — one of hardware.
Since the time of the invention of the Smell-O-Vision system in 1960, to the iSmell in 1999, the oPhone in 2014, and today, one critical obstacle in digital olfaction remains the mixing of odors both on the device (cross-contamination through sharing of dispersion channels) and in space. The former is more easily solved by using separate dispersion channels for each scent, while the latter deals with more unknowns such as the size of the space, quality of the air, and the airflow in the space. Once dispensed, molecules create the targeted sensory experience for a user. However, as time progresses and as scenarios change, we need to be able to eliminate old scents promptly before new scents are introduced. Room installations like the OsmoDrama and IoT products like the Aromashooter are tools that have enabled the targeted dispersion of olfactory information from a distance — something that was practically unthinkable in the past. In virtual and augmented reality experiences, the challenge is reduced as users would be wearing a headset or glasses that could include a scent device. The OVR Technology headset is an elegant example of this. The proximity of the headset to the nose allows for incredibly small dispersions of scent that can be synced to virtual interactions, experienced instantaneously, and just as quickly neutralized. This is already possible today.
It’s critical to our humanness
Now to the why. Once we enter a virtual space, we expect it to have spacial qualities. It should engage each sense on various dimensions to form a 3D experience of a moment.
In Mark Zuckerberg’s interview with Lex Friedman, Meta’s CEO emphasizes the use of immersive worlds for life-like virtual experiences as well as alternate realities. In both, according to Mark enabling eye contact and employing spatial audio will be key in allowing us more easily connect with others and feel immersed in a virtual space. Smell, also a spatial sense, has also been established as essential in forming bonds between persons and increasing memory of and appeal of products and environments in physical reality in addition to enabling the feeling of presence in virtual environments. The cup of coffee on our desk, arriving at a backyard bbq, or walking in nature provides us with sensory cues that enrich the quality of an experience, even when they are barely noticed.
Scents can enable us to even find our place in a new context through olfactory cues, anchor an experience and give us clues as to what to expect. All this helps give space meaning. In addition, it can signal appetite, threat, nostalgia and emphasize certain objects and areas, while also foreshadowing events to come. This can be especially helpful when navigating and forming associations in unfamiliar virtual environments.
Humans have more genes responsible for olfaction than for any other of our senses and it has been established that our sense of smell is better at detecting and differentiating odors than we give it credit for. With every breath, we sample chemicals that distinguish which places, people and objects could be life-threatening with ones that could be pleasant or even addictive.
For this reason, the creation of life-like emotional experiences via sensory cues in the metaverse is an important dimension that developers will have to consider. More concretely, consider the three dimensions of scent: foreground, background, and momentary. By using these dimensions, today’s technologies (cf. OVR Technology) are already able to significantly increase the sense of presence and the prominence of an object presented to a user in a virtual environment. Put another way, scents can be used to focus our attention, which will be an extremely powerful means to advertise products, convey emotions, and make experiences more memorable and emotionally engaging in the virtual world. If this is not compelling enough, did you know that depicting the outlines of our nose in VR, could even keep VR-induced motion sickness at bay?
It’s time to consider ethics around olfaction
This powerful combination of technology and human reception to olfactory stimuli offers exciting potential to create holistic virtual experiences. As with any invention, if we don’t honestly consider the impacts, we may just be extending our current problems to new mediums and forms. The same arises with olfaction. Developers and users will have to consider ethical boundaries that arise when these tools become widely available.
There are currently little to no boundaries when it comes to creating sensorially engaging moments that augment emotions and positive associations via smells in synthetic environments or even products, such as engineered food. By repeatedly “training” a user’s brain through sensory enriched experiences, similar to the dopamine released when engaging with social media, people can become artificially accustomed to overstimulation and even addiction to artificial places and environments. This could make it difficult to enjoy the flavors of non-enhanced “natural” foods or environments. This becomes particularly sensitive due to our neurocircuitry because our sense of smell has a more direct connection to associative learning, emotion, and memory than any of our other senses. This could therefore even be taken further and make us accustomed or addicted to products that are known to be harmful to us.
One simple example could be the covering of foul odors in physical environments, such as cigarette smoke, with fresh and clean smells in a virtual setup. By consistently applying this narrative, users can be convinced that the smell of cigarette smoke (and thus smoking itself) is not problematic, or even desirable.
Consequently, there is a thin red line between using the combination of human reception to olfactory stimuli and modern VR technology to create a positive experience, versus its application for manipulation. The idea of a metaverse, therefore, does not only need an honest discussion about security but also on ethical boundaries and guidelines that become paramount if one appreciates the power that smell has on our every behavior.
To further explore the topic of scent, olfactory research, and its applications to experiences in physical and digital worlds, inquire about a workshop firstname.lastname@example.org.