A few years back, the idea of simulating a sense of smell in a virtual reality environment seemed like an almost impossible task, even a totally superfluous idea given that people experience other media such as videos and 3D without an olfactory component. Prediction after prediction on the future of VR seemed to have totally overlooked the possibility of incorporating olfaction into the VR experience in our lifetime.
It seems preposterous now given how integral the sense of smell is to our overall perception of our environment. If you are going to simulate reality, it only makes sense if some sense of smell is part of the simulation. You can see it, touch it or hear it but it will never be complete if you can’t smell it. People without a sense of smell, or anosmics, generally suffer from severe depression and reduced quality of life. Some have even complained of feeling dissociated from the world around them due to a loss of sense of smell.
Fortunately for VR enthusiasts, there have been developments towards the incorporation of olfaction into the VR experience. There is the FeelReal mask prototype that is currently planning a Kickstarter fundraising campaign for a multisensory virtual reality mask that will release scents and even mist to make VR experiences even more immersive. Previous attempts at virtual reality olfaction such as Smell-o-Vision and iSmell have resulted in failures.
The latest attempt is the effort by Japan’s infotech corporation NEC which has partnered with the VR-focused venture capital firm VAQSO to incorporate olfaction into the virtual reality experiences for shoppers in online stores. VAQSO is a Tokyo- and San Francisco-based startup that specializes in odor-emitting add-ons for virtual reality headsets. VASQO produces VR-based scented devices that smell according to the virtual reality content.
The NEC Corporation partnership will allow shoppers to smell products within a virtual browsing environment. The new innovation will enable NEC and its clients to control the composition of the smell in a virtual reality environment by using the VAQSO Inc API which will trigger various scents by code. Currently, the API is capable of triggering up to 15 scented oils.
On the consumer-facing side, the technology will enable shoppers to put on a virtual reality headset and browse through a virtual store and smell the scents of the various products on offer such as apples as they approach them. NEC’s olfactory integration aims to enhance the reality of shopping in a virtual environment through the stimulation of both the visual and olfactory sense.
The Japanese corporation is expecting that the roll-out of the more compact and lightweight virtual reality devices and virtual reality shopping will go more mainstream with the advent of the fifth-generation mobile communications (5G) from 2021 and beyond. In anticipation of that VR-5G future, NEC corporation is developing new systems which are aimed at fortifying its virtual reality business solutions for corporate customers.