A new mask adds ‘realistic’ smells to VR

The device, the authors hope, can make virtual reality feel more lifelike.
From pineapples to pancakes, these scientists are bringing scents to VR. Nature/YouTube

In even the most immersive virtual reality setting, it’s unusual to encounter smells. Previous attempts at incorporating smells into VR often utilized aerosols or atomizers, which take the gear to a whole new level of bulkiness, not to mention more complicated cleaning requirements. 

However, scientists from Beihang University and the City University of Hong Kong recently published a report in Nature Communications detailing their methods for integrating smell into existing VR technology. 

The first of the two devices is a sort of a patch designed to be worn right under your nose, while a second device looks more like a soft mask. But, they both do basically the same thing—a temperature-sensing resistor controls a heating element, and this heating element warms up a smelly paraffin wax to provide the user with a number of scents (two for the nose patch and nine for the mask). When smelling time is over, magnetic induction coils sweep heat away from the face, effectively blowing out the smelly wax. 

“This is quite an exciting development,” Jas Brooks, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago’s Human-Computer Integration Lab who has studied chemical interfaces and smell, told MIT Technology Review. “It’s tackling a core problem with smell in VR: How do we miniaturize this, make it not messy, and not use liquid?”

[Related: A new VR exhibit takes you inside the James Webb Space Telescope’s images.]

The authors were able to make 30 different scents total, from herbal rosemary to fruity pineapple to sweet baked pancakes. They even included some less-than-pleasant scents, for example a stinky durian. The 11 volunteers were able to detect said smells with an average success rate of 93 percent. 

The device, the authors hope, can make VR feel more realistic. But it can also help people who are physically far from each other feel close again, something that may have come in handy during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Author and scientist at City University of Hong Kong Xinge Yu told New Scientist that he hopes the device can help families or couples feel closer together by creating shared smells. “In terms of entertainment,” Yu continued, “users could experience various outdoor environments with different nature smells at home by VR.”

In a health setting, using the sniffable tool could help rejig memory for people with cognitive decline, or even help people improve their sense of smell after temporary loss due to COVID or another illness, Scientific American reports. But, before any of that happens, the researchers plan to work on shrinking down the size of the tools, and maybe even fiddling with the concept of taste next.