Hear more about author James Vlahos's experience in the Army's new smell simulator on the PopSci Podcast.
I´m Army, Special Operations. My mission: to sneak up on a rebel training camp. If the intelligence is right-if the place is being operated by the enemy Tiger Brigade-then I´m supposed to plant a radio transmitter so that F-16 pilots can launch smart bombs directly to the target. I just need to make absolutely sure that the location is correct-that the rebels are indeed based here. And that won´t be easy.
I creep through a dark drainage culvert, my helmet skimming the ceiling. There´s graffiti on the walls, puddles and trash on the ground. The place smells like damp earth and moldy concrete, a bit like my parents´ cellar- although home didn´t have bats overhead or rats underfoot. I emerge in a forest, by a river, at night. The air is crisp and piney. After the dank culvert, the change is so refreshing that I initially don´t notice the cinderblock building on the hilltop ahead. I don´t notice the sentry on the roof, standing at a machine gun and looking right at me.
Good thing I´m not actually a soldier in a war zone. I´m in Los Angeles, standing in cubicle-land on the third floor of a modern office building. On my head are virtual-reality (VR) goggles with a stereoscopic, 90-degree field of view of the forest. In my hands is a PlayStation-type controller for directing my movements. And around my neck is an oval of blue plastic fitted with four vented metal modules the size of Zippo lighters. Wirelessly controlled by a nearby stack of computers, the modules transform what would otherwise be standard-issue military VR-for along with sight and sound, this training exercise features the smell of war.
The idea of using odor to help train soldiers may seem asinine, or ingenious, or maybe both. That´s par for the course at the oddball outfit where the project was born, the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), a joint operation of the University of Southern California, Hollywood, theme-park designers and the U.S. military. If anyone can find a way to use smell to make VR feel more real-an idea that´s simple in principle but complicated in practice-it´s probably the people here.
At the ICT, movie directors, television writers and videogame makers work in consultation with captains, colonels and generals in an office created by the lead set designer for Star Trek. The entertainment-industry folk get Department of Defense dollars-$145 million has been committed to the ICT since its inception in 1999-to research technology years from commercialization. And the military gains the savvy of an industry that knows how to engage Generation Xbox, whose members must be recruited and trained in large numbers for operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.
To understand why the military would experiment with smell-enhanced simulation, consider how war itself has changed. Traditional combat is akin to chess, with high-level commanders directing troops and equipment around the battlefield and individual soldiers typically functioning as order-following pawns. Contemporary combat, however, is more often characterized by small-unit operations in urban terrain. Key tactical decisions are often made at the bottom of the chain of command rat