Multisensory Presence In Virtual Reality - part 1
| Tony Mowbray
One of the biggest advantages of Virtual Reality (VR) is its unparalleled ability to block out the real world and make the user feel like they are inside a virtual one. A VR headset does this by immersing the senses of sight and hearing using a helmet-like device with in-built screen and audio.
However, immersive visuals and audio are just part of the picture when it comes to creating a realistic simulation, as we also experience the world through our senses of touch, taste and smell. Simply put, the more senses involved in a VR experience, the greater our feeling of presence in the virtual world. In the race to create the ultimate realistic VR experience, companies are continually coming up with exciting and innovative technologies to stimulate the senses.
This article is part one in a two part series where we go over some current and cutting-edge technology designed to deliver a multisensory VR experience. We take a look at the sensory technology attempting to emulate our sense of smell and taste, and in part two, we explore existing technology designed to simulate touch. But first, we’ll begin with where it all started by taking a brief look at what is considered the first ever VR-type multisensory experience ever created.
History of Sensory Virtual Reality: The Sensorama
The first multisensory VR-type technology aptly named the Sensorama was designed to stimulate all of the senses (except taste) and was created in 1962 by filmmaker Morton Heilig. The Sensorama was like a large cabinet complete with a mechanical chair where users could sit and enjoy a stereoscopic 3D film.
To demonstrate how the Sensorama would work, Let’s use an example of a film about a motorcycle ride through the city. As you watch the film, the mechanical chair of the Sensorama would simulate the motion of the bike and the in-built fans would make it feel like the wind was blowing on your face whilst odor emitters release the scent of exhaust fumes at the appropriate times.
The Sensorama brought an unprecedented sense of immersion through its multisensory design and was certainly ahead of its time. However, as you might expect, sensory technology has moved on quite a bit from the early 60s and so now let’s take a look at what current technology exists that’s designed to deliver an immersive multisensory experience.
The Current State of Sensory VR
Olfactory Virtual Reality (OVR) is one of a few companies attempting to bring scent technology into the immersive space with their scent device called the ION. The ION sits at the bottom of the headset, near the nose (as you would expect), and connects to the headset via Bluetooth.
When developers create a VR experience for the ION, they tag 3D objects with scent geometry so the device delivers the right scent for the right object. For example, I could tag the petals of a 3D model of a rose to smell sweet and tag the roots to smell earthy. Then, as the user leans in to smell the virtual rose, the tagged scents are delivered via interchangeable cartridges inside the ION that can hold nine different scents at a time.
However, with a price tag of $5000 a year for the ION with replacement cartridges, it’s not quite ready for the consumer market just yet. There are cheaper scent based systems like the VAQSO unit which is much more affordable at $999 USD, but that too is not available for consumers at this time.
Whilst the ION and VAQSO have the power to unlock potent and realistic VR experiences through smell, one drawback with these liquid based scent devices is that the scent tends to linger for some time. Another scent technology called the Aroma Shooter avoids this problem by abandoning liquid scents altogether, and uses a solid scent solution which has the advantage of being able to change the scent in a fraction of a second without the smell lingering.
Overall, scent based technology is still in its infancy but these early devices give a promising glimpse of the future of olfactory VR technologies.
Due to our sense of taste being fairly complex it is one of the trickiest things to simulate through technology, but some early prototype devices show it might be possible. One such innovative device created by Professor Nimesha Ranasinghe is able to do just that through stimulating taste buds through electricity.
The device works by first placing the user's tongue between two electrodes. It is then able to emulate the flavours of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, mint and even spicy by varying both the temperature and electrical waves passing through the electrodes. The only drawback despite the bulkiness of the device, is that they’ve had mixed success with recreating some flavours.
A more reliable design that is also capable of delivering a range of different flavor sensations uses electricity in combination with specialised gels. The rod-shaped device contains five flavoured gels on one end that are touched onto the tongue which initially lets you taste all five flavours at once. But by applying a small electrical charge to the tongue, certain flavours can be heightened whilst others recede into the background. Users then get to experience a weak taste of either sweet, sour, salty, bitter, or umami on their tongue.
As you can see, just like smell, our sense of taste is also quite complex and the development of devices that can simulate different flavours is still very much in its early stages. In contrast, developers have found simulating touch easier to accomplish and, as such, the development of this technology is much further along the road.
In part two of this series, we take a look at the current haptic technologies designed to emulate touch and speculate on the future of sensory technologies.
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