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Meet the Companies Trying to Bring Scent to the Metaverse

Inside the San Francisco Museum of Crafts and Design, a long hallway painted eggshell blue is lined with the most extraordinary devices. A glass globe that uses trained bees to detect the presence of disease in a person’s exhalations. An Alexa-esque diffuser that emits scents at regular intervals to encourage people with dementia to eat. A USB-powered silver necklace that releases a scent – scents include “fascinate”, “annihilate” and “celebrate” – when its wearer’s heart rate exceeds 110 beats per minute. All items are here as part of Living with perfumesthe museum’s first olfactory exhibition.

But it’s a much more modest item – a pair of VR goggles – that catches my eye and nose.

Sitting next to the helmet is the secret sauce to this experience; a white Bluetooth-enabled snap-on cartridge, aka ION, Vermont’s flagship OVR Technology (short for olfactory virtual reality technology).

“It is essential that the perfume be [part of] metaverse development. . . or we completely limit the potential,” OVR CEO Aaron Wisniewski later told me on Zoom. “Smell has this profound effect on who we are, what we feel, what we do, what we buy, who we love.”

[Photo: courtesy of OVR]

OVR’s snap-n-scent cartridge is preloaded with nine chemical compounds, which combine to create hundreds of scents, released via digitally programmed signals. Creating scents is a complex and convoluted process; while “strawberry” or “chocolate” flavors are straightforward, creating “beach” requires a combination of sand, sea breeze, and SPF.

“Unfortunately, there is no smell RGB,” says Wisniewski. A software plugin makes the ION compatible with Unity and Unreal content. It hopes to release a consumer version in 2023.

Unfortunately, OVR’s exhibit does not include a hands-on demonstration, due to COVID-19. “We would like to dive deeper with our audience,” says Sarah Beth Rosales, the museum’s communications director. “People don’t [always] think about the more abstract ways in which objects hold scents. To be able to highlight [scent] is really important.

OVR CEO Aaron Wisniewski [Photo: courtesy of OVR]

Smell, after all, is more than just a scented adjunct to life; our olfactory neurons create unconscious physiological responses. japanese plum flowersfor example, turned out activate the sympathetic nervous system, improve mood and energy. To truly build an immersive metaverse, it’s essential to include scent; in absentia, things seem off.

The convergence of technology and fragrance is nothing new – the short-lived Smell-O-Vision debuted in 1960! – but the lack of wider adoption was more about prospects than offers. For years, many have considered smell to be the least important of the senses. A 2018 study of British millennials found 64% prefer to sacrifice their sense of smell rather than their smartphone.

But during the pandemic, due to the virus’ sometimes debilitating effect on our sense of smell, that changed. In the absence of smell, people gained a new appreciation for what their more than 400 olfactory receptors brought to their lived experience: the memories that smell evokes, its psychological impact, and the exceptionally strong interaction between smell and taste.

This deeper understanding of scent matched the broader paradigm of integrating multi-sensory technology into everyday use: In 2021, Amazon patented a scent-recognition app for its Ring bells, and in 2019, from google Brain Team has announced that it has successfully designed a neural network to accurately assess odors at the molecular level.

Today, as engineers, designers, and architects across the Metaverse work out how future digital experiences will look, for some, smell has become a key piece of the puzzle. Whoever defines the smell first will be at the head of this fledgling category, meaning the smell is enabled.

[Photo: courtesy of OVR]

OVR technology is already used in therapeutic contexts. Ascendant New York, a $3,500-a-day clinic for substance-related disorders, offers patients guided meditations through Inhale Wellness, OVR’s mindfulness platform launched in November 2021, which sends users into a natural setting. and emits scent puffs of 0.1 milliseconds relative to their VR interactions.

Los Angeles veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder learn about OVR smells through indoor VR exposure therapy treatment laboratories at University of Southern California Institute of Creative Technologies. These odors are particularly difficult to reproduce; to recreate gun smoke, for example, you must imitate sulfur dioxide, a poisonous gas whose manufacture is illegal.

“We need to find a workaround using analogous molecules that are safe to use,” says Wisniewski. “Smell is this chaotic soup of molecules.”

OVR is one of many players in the digital fragrance space. Maybe the more interesting The odor-killing material is being concocted in Jas Brooks’ lab in Chicago. The doctor’s Bluetooth device sits above the septum and sends tiny electrical impulses that stimulate the trigeminal nerve (the cranial nerve that delivers facial sensations) to create directional information about a scent for the wearer (he won a fast business experimentation price pattern).

In the UK there are OW Digital Smell, which raised $1.2 million to develop an AI-powered, cloud-based “Photoshop for Smell” service. In Spain, Olorama Technology has developed a library of 400 scents (scents include ‘pastry’, ‘mojito’ and ‘wet floor’) delivered via scent boxes, many of which can be activated by the user’s voice. Also available: a COVID test smell kit. Olorama’s luxury product, a 40-scent unit, starts at $13,408. At the wackier end of the spectrum is a NFT perfume from Berlin-based Look Labs, captured via near-infrared spectroscopy recording of a perfume’s molecular wavelength.

But behind every fledgling company is the graveyard of past startups. feelreal The crowdfunded multi-sensory VR mask demoed to acclaim in 2015 but died out in 2020 (in part due to flavored vaping laws), leaving behind a string of disgruntled investors. Based in Tokyo Vaqsowhich raised $600,000 in 2017 for its clip-on cartridge and fan combo, hasn’t updated its website in years.

“It’s an interesting technology, but not an interesting business model. . . for now,” says Christina Ku, venture capitalist at Docomo Ventures, whose parent company, NTT Docomo, has integrated the digital scent into cocoon, its custom-built metaverse-in-real-life meeting room. For Ku, the lack of major investments “denotes the very early stage of smell”. But commercial brands are intrigued, she adds, pointing out from Nissan investing in its “new car smell” and hiring smells. “That’s the next item,” she said.

However, Yash Patel, a general partner at Telstra Ventures who invests in Web3 startups, sees the embedded scent as a distraction from the bigger picture. “The Metaverse will not be hardware-driven,” he says; in its timeline, interoperability comes first, better devices come next, and only then will there be room to develop immersive add-ons.

Another player in the digi-scent space is based in Arkansas Virtual hypnosis. Its approach is twofold: On the hardware side, the company has a connected nebulizer, preloaded with fragrances collected by a cold diffusion process to maintain the purity of the ingredients. Its software mixes them, based on data inputs, and releases them at specific times, chosen via its internal “scent poets” or via its artificial intelligence. A drag-and-drop fragrance editor is also in the works, says CEO Michael Kaczkowski. Think how much richer those holiday slideshows will be if you can include sensory detail.

Then a catch. In 2020, Kaczkowski, who also manages a prostheses company that recreates realistic skin, eyes and limbs, went down with COVID-19. It was as if someone had dropped a rock on him; he felt lethargic and his sense of smell disappeared. “It was awful,” he says. “I spent years and millions of dollars on this, and now I can’t smell.”

He took some solace in knowing that the human body, even without scent, would still respond physiologically (but not psychologically) to scent inputs, meaning the medical side of Hypnos was still in play, especially its cartridges. of cannabinoids that deliver THC without smoke. and CBD. (Meanwhile, Kaczkowski says he’s now got 80% of his smell back). Tested by anaesthesiologists, this is the area that is attracting the most interest from investors, he says.

The THC side of things also raises some interesting opportunities for Hypnos Virtual’s movie model (“Imagine modulating your high during a movie,” says Kaczkowski). On the consumer side, it’s working with high-end home theater designers for a slow rollout, priced around $25,000. “The price will go down over time,” he adds.

There is no doubt that the smell evokes certain chemical and emotional reactions in humans. Many professional bowlers use scented balls because of the benefits associations they evoke. But while we all inhale the same chemical compounds, our responses are unique to our own histories, memories, and social makeup. As the Metaverse expands, the only way for it to truly reflect reality is to include scent from the start. People may notice its absence more than its inclusion, but for truly realistic immersion, those pain points need to be removed.

Before leaving the Living with perfumes exhibition, I stopped at the interactive perfumery table, hosted by the Ministry of Olfactory Perfumery. I tested around 30 bottles, categorized into top, mid, and low notes, and circled my favorites on a sample sheet. Its second station contained brown bottles with droppers, and I concocted my own scent, based on my top-ranked notes: a dash of tea rose, chocolate, and aquatic. I sniffed deeply and coughed: there was a damp, sickly smell, like detergent, wet dogs and stale cookies.

It was a good reminder that while perfume is everywhere, it’s also an art form. The majority of the Metaverse will be developed by software engineers who, while skilled at their job, lack the nuanced knowledge of smell. Recognizing this, many have turned to outside experts, such as fashion designers to Metaverse Fashion Weekand consult and enter into contracts with large architects on the creation of the city. With that in mind, perhaps the profession of “olfactory choreographer” will soon be part of the metaverse hiring boom.