The metaverse is expanding by the minute, and speculation abounds as to what each of us might want to do there. Attend virtual parties? Catch a virtual wave? Buy and furnish a virtual home? What remains nebulous, however, is what it will actually be like to do these things. What exactly will virtual experiences sound like, or feel like, or taste like? Dare we ask … what might they smell like?
Jas Brooks, a Ph.D. student in the department of computer science at the University of Chicago’s Human Computer Integration Lab, is part of a growing group of researchers who have taken up the latter question as one of the drivers of their work. Over the past four years, Brooks has been studying chemical interfaces—a class of devices that emit chemicals which alter users’ sense-based experiences—and how they might be used in both virtual and augmented reality.
Central to Brooks’s research is the trigeminal nerve, a bundle of fibers with endings in the nostrils that detect physical temperature shifts as well as interpret certain chemicals—such as menthol and capsaicin (the active component of chili peppers)—as coolness or warmth. They and their team have engineered devices which interact with the nerve in a variety of ways. One project involves a wearable thermal display—a VR headset with a contraption that extends below the nose—that creates the illusion of varying temperatures by stimulating the user’s trigeminal nerve with custom scent chemicals, diffused directly into the nostrils. Upon entering the virtual setting, users find themselves in a cabin in a wooded area blanketed by snow. As they move around the house, which is heated by a furnace, the device introduces a capsaicin-based scent that, as it’s breathed in, generates a feeling of warmth. When the wearer steps outside into the cold, the device emits a mint-scented chemical, eucalyptol, which evokes the chill of an icy mountain. The device could be a key tool in reproducing immersive, climate-controlled environments in the metaverse.
Most recently, Brooks helped engineer a “stereo-smell” device, made to be worn across the septum like a snore-stopper. It transmits, via Bluetooth, varying electrical pulses to the trigeminal nerve to enable a user to perceive the direction from which a gas, such as methane, is emanating. Brooks proposes that this device could not only contribute to the three-dimensional scent experience of the metaverse, but also augment our existing reality by helping users to, for example, locate a gas leak in their homes.
We recently spoke with Brooks to learn more about their research and its potential implications, both inside and outside of the metaverse.
What led to your interest in how senses might be experienced in virtual worlds?
I initially got into this area of research because of personal experiences with odor that had huge impacts on me. For instance, moments when I was walking down the street and was suddenly hit by an odor that was passing by. I’d just stop and freeze and think, Wow, that reminded me of something from years ago. Or I’d wonder where that odor came from, and walk around, trying to find it. Those kinds of experiences really highlight the sensuality of odor that keeps me coming back. I’m really interested in smell itself as a modality. It’s so captivating and evocative.
How do you see scent playing a role in virtual and augmented reality?
Smell has always been thought of for its entertainment value, or marketability. So in virtual reality, it could be used to interact with perfumes or with foods. It could also be valuable on the educational side of things. It could help with sensory education (learning to appreciate different food smells), heritage conservation (preserving 3-D smell experiences from history), ambient screenings (such as checking if you potentially have Covid-19 through existing VR experiences), or odor training (training a user to find the source of an odor). In terms of the latter, there are two researchers, Simon Niedenthal and Jonas Olofsson, who did really interesting work on wine tasting, and trying to train participants to perceive certain blends of odors, and telling what components are part of a particular wine. That context is fantastic for VR, because it provides the context that’s necessary—the wine and a standardized environment—for people to actually train themselves. It’s situations where the odor is critical for the actual activity.
But for me, I don’t see much of a separation between scent’s uses in virtual versus augmented reality. The challenge with virtual reality is that you have to essentially reproduce the full smell experience. It’s the same as for vision, where you have to block out our vision completely, and then have a computer powerful enough to create a 3-D simulation for you to navigate. With smell, that becomes a challenge, because you have a limited space for reservoirs, or fragrance sources. And there’s no equivalent to RGB for smell—we don’t have a super tiny set of odor molecules that can produce the entire landscape of smells.
That’s why I’m really excited about smell in augmented reality in particular, because in augmented reality, smell isn’t so much a limitation as something we can play with. We have such rich odors in everyday life—like, you microwave something and open it, and it’s just got this puff of smells that are super tantalizing—that we can’t easily reproduce, but we can change how we interact with them. And you don’t need every odor molecule in the world to change how you perceive odors that are already in that space. So, you could potentially do things with our stereo-smell project with an odor in the space that already exists, and change how you’re interacting with it by adding something on top or by decreasing things. This is the future work that we’re hoping to do.
Can you describe what it's like to use the products themselves?
Because it’s university research stuff, it’s all prototypes—so it’s never the perfect, final version. The temperature-simulating device wasn’t the best-engineered device, because I’m by no means the world’s best engineer. But there were no issues with comfort.
For the stereo-smell device, the design itself could definitely be slimmer. It’s already tiny for what it is, because you can fit it in your nose and still breathe comfortably. But it could easily become one-third or one-fourth of its size, if engineers were put on that project for longer. Comfort-wise, the people who tried it were mostly okay with it. The biggest limitation is probably batteries, which has always been a limitation in research. Maybe one day, you could make a version of it that’s self-powered by your breathing. That would be amazing. As for the quality of the smells themselves, there were simulations that were very strong, and as you can imagine, people were saying, “Oh, I don’t really want to follow this super-strong smell!”
As for the quality of the smell experience itself, the descriptions from our test subjects were along the lines of bubbly, vinegary, wasabi, refreshing, and warm. So it was a mix of tactile and smell perceptions, which is to be expected, because the nerve that we’re stimulating perceives both.
You’ve suggested that these smell technologies might have uses beyond virtual or augmented reality. What are some other potential applications of the devices you and your team have developed?
For the stereo-smell project, what’s exciting is that we’re stimulating one of the nerves that’s usually retained even when someone experiences smell loss, or anosmia. Most people with anosmia lose function of the olfactory bulb, but they may retain a dulled trigeminal nerve sensation. On one end of the spectrum, you can put in a super invasive olfactory cochlear implant—a device that would stimulate the olfactory bulb to restore a user’s sense of smell—but that is still a ways away from being a reality.
So one of the things I’m curious about is, can we tap into that nerve and offer a non-invasive option that’s kind of like a hearing aid, but for smell? A smelling aid? It wouldn’t recover every odor the wearer experienced in the past, but it would at least help them detect things like a gas leak, or give food more nuance. It’s also fascinating to think of the technology’s potential therapeutic uses, like for PTSD, for instance. Odor is such a strong experience for personal memory. This technology can be useful either for recalling the experience, or helping you to get over that recall.
On the art side, it’s really about providing tools for people to produce new smell experiences. With a lot of previous olfactory experiences, it’s difficult to produce a controlled odor in the air, because air is so turbulent. The stereo-smell device would be able to render a more sculpted odor stream in the air that you could interact with. One artist, Maki Ueda, for example, does a lot of work with navigating smell mazes. She hangs scented pendants from the ceiling, and you’re supposed to choose what direction to go in based on the different smells of the pendants. What would it mean to reproduce that same experience but where there’s nothing in the room, except for the odors being presented? That’s interesting to think about. There’s also movies. The potential is pretty endless.
You also conduct historical research related to smell. What are you working on in this area now?
I’m working with my collaborator Tammy Burnstock, an Australian documentary filmmaker and olfactory artist, as well as Arizona State University professor Christy Spackman and graduate student Lauryn Mannigel, on a pretty fun project right now. We have the last existing Smell-O-Vision device in our library, from 1960. It failed at the time, infamously, but it’s created a kind of haunting in the smell technology world, where everything gets compared to it. It’s gotten kind of a bad rap in some sense, because when you read about the experience, and you interview people that actually experienced it, you learn that it had limitations—but it was also full of wonder. We’re trying to see if we can either conserve or restore the device, and potentially curate a series of scented films around it.
We have two other similar projects. There’s one that’s on AromaRama, which was the competing device at the time. I think I found a theater that still has the device, assuming that it hasn’t been renovated. No one really knows how the device worked, so I’ve been reading a lot of newspaper reviews and things like that, trying to understand what the experience was, how it worked, and what happened to all of the people associated with the device.
The other one is with my collaborator Simon Niedenthal from Malmö University in Sweden. We’re looking at DigiScents and other scent technologies companies from the 1990s and 2000s that said they would be able to generate any odor a user could want—for games, and things like that. It didn’t work, either. We’ve been interviewing a bunch of people who were associated with these devices from the early 2000s, to try to understand their thinking and findings. What was the context at the time for them to actually try to produce these kinds of devices? Because, oftentimes, these kinds of devices are dismissed as gimmicks. And in some sense they are gimmicks—but so was any kind of technology, until it hit the perfect experience for people to realize that it had potential. It’s really about just going back and having a more nuanced understanding of what these devices were, and to potentially inform how we should be moving forward.
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The mysteries surrounding our olfactory systems have been the focus of Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center since it opened, in 1968, more than 20 years before the discovery of the odorant receptors that we use to perceive scencreating and administering smell tests as soon as olfactory impairment emerged as a primary symptom for the novel coronavirus. We recently asked Dr. Dalton ho
The name Bernard may conjure different connotations for different folks—say, Senator Sanders, your favorite breed of mouBernard is the name of his fragrance brand, which recently debuted with a collection of hand-poured candles. “This is a scent mMeli, the Greek word for honey, is warm and sweet, with base notes of orris root and leather; Eira takes inspiration from Sc
Sweaty running clothes. The litter box. That odd funk emanating from the back of the fridge. Unpleasant scents can transMoso Natural, a line of odor-eliminating linen bags filled with an unexpected ingredient: bamboo. The California-based brand is name
Catherine Haley Epstein, author of Nose Dive: A Book For The Curious Seeking Potential Through Their Noses, is an artist and curator who specializes in scent and the ways our brains register it. Last year, with olfactory histoOdorbet, an ever-growing online database of terms they collect from various sources to describe smells. It also includes invent Why should we describe smells in nuanced, specific ways?
From its over-reliance on packaging to its use of harmful chemicals, the beauty industry is long overdue for a rethink o
Made on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, fragrances by Di Ser appeal to more than the nose alone. Perfumer Yasuyuki Shinohara founded the company, in 1999, as two interconnected ent
The poster child for the gray-skyed Pacific Northwest, Portland is perhaps America’s most book-loving city. Reading is a
“I don’t consider myself a perfumer,” says Julian Bedel, a former musician who taught himself how to make wearable scentFueguia 1833 in 2010. “I don’t know anything about perfume. My work is more of an artistic creation, and how I create the formulas i
Dr. Kate McLean, who spearheads the graphic design program at Canterbury Christ Church University in the United Kingdom,“smellscapes”: colorful diagrams made of dots and wavy, concentric rings that detail where an odor occurs in a specific place, and ho
Covering everything from a detective story by Edgar Allan Poe to the role that scent plays in racism, the new book The Smell of Risk: Olfactory Aesthetics and Atmospheric Disparities (NYU Press) investigates how, over the past 200 years, writers, artists, and activists have used smell in their work to
In the last decade, the rise of modest, product-focused scent brands has debunked the notion that the fragrance industryFanny Bal, who based her creation on the aromatic sap from the lentisc tree that grows on the Greek island of Chios, and senior sDomitille Michalon-Bertier, who designed her fragrance around the Inhotim Museum, an outdoor art center located in a Brazilian forest. Perfumer Delphine Lebeau recently learned about the Japanese pastry mochi, and used a trio of musks to embody the treat’s soft, mellow profile. The resulting 11 fragrances were unveiled at a viavailable for purchase in the U.S. on the website Luckyscent—providing a nose around what makes these master craftspeople tick.
Headquartered in Grenoble, a city in southeastern France, the six-year-old start-up Aryballe has a singular, if not entirely un-straightforward, goal: to capture, analyze, and digitally document smells. This work
Scent has the power to transport us instantly to another time or place. Consequently, the evocatively perfumed objects fHomesick enable wistful souls to travel to a cherished holiday, family tradition, or any state in the continental U.S., as well New York City, pumpkin picking, and more abstract experiences, such as a ski trip or a book club), then translates their feedback into an authentic, recognizable fragrance. More than a momentary escape, the scents suRoad Trip candle by day, and Beach Cottage by night.
Anyone who’s ever owned a dog (or been owned by one) knows that scent is paramount to how canines experience the world. Cat Warren, a science journalism professor at North Carolina State University, this observation became something of an obsession. What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World, followed by an edition that translates her research for younger readers, newly out in paperback—that detail the remarkable, often life-saving power of a hound’s snout. “We humans are highly German Shepherd police dog, Trakr, who located the last 9/11 survivor in the rubble of the World Trade Center, or the pooches that find drowning victims more than 200 feet under the sea. “Dogs can help make the invisible visible,” Warren says. “We need to watch them closely, know they can help translate
Your nose knows best. So says Harold McGee, a leading expert on the science of food and cooking, and author of the new bNose Dive: A Field Guide To The World’s Smells. Developed over the course of a decade, the blockbuster attempts to unpack the science of scent by looking in great dep
According to Dr. Alan R. Hirsch, the neurologist and psychiatrist who founded Chicago’s Smell and Taste Treatment and Rehe told the medical journal Alternative & Complementary Therapies. “More than a hundred years ago Freud said that, in order for society to remain civilized, it was necessary to repress oIn a study conducted by Hirsch’s foundation, 40 percent of participants—who were each connected to a plethysmograph, a device that measures blood flow caused by se
Six decades ago, researchers at 3M and the NCR Corporation were looking for a more effective way of trapping ink inside functioned with scented oils that, when scratched, burst open, emitting their distinctive smells. The technique has since been used on stickers, stamps, and perfume-peddling magazine inserts. John Waters incorporated it into his 1981 film Polyester, when he distributed large cards that featured ten circular patches, laced with scents such as skunk and old shoes, forwine and whiskey, helps readers understand flavor through the scents of its aromatic pages, while co-authors Seth Matlins and Eve EpsteiThe Scratch and Sniff Book of Weed. Other titles employ the strategy in more subtle ways. Scent in Context, a deep dive into the work of Belgian olfactory artist Peter De Cupere, disperses hidden scratch-and-sniff odors among a journal from the California publisher Knock Knock that pairs scented stickers with writing prompts—a clever way to stimulate users’ emotions, creativity, and memory.
Kristen Griffith-VanderYacht, founder of Wild Bloom Floral in Seattle, and the head judge of Netflix’s The Big Flower Fight—essentially, the fantastical floral equivalent of The Great British Baking Show—knows the power of an impactful blossom. Here, he tells us why a fabulous arrangement activates all the senses, and is