Will virtual reality soon be able to make us smell, taste and touch?

Virtual reality headsets already use images and sounds, but what about the other senses? Some companies are looking for ways to integrate touch, smell and taste into it for more immersive experiences. General overview.

In the collective imagination, virtual reality the final would be a perfect immersion to the point that it would be difficult to distinguish it from real life, or even something more intense and interesting. In reality, helmets are still a niche market and the stimulation of other senses is aimed above all at a professional audience.

Touch: several paths to explore

After sight and hearing, touch is the sense that companies work on the most. It makes interactions with the environment more intuitive and realistic, and therefore makes the virtual world more immersive. Although this sector can still be considered experimental, as there are no well-established standards yet, there are already some products whose design is finalized and ready to be sold, generally to professionals.

Most haptic devices – which mimic the sense of touch – focus on the hands, as this aids in grasping objects and the ability to distinguish different textures. For example, the Dutch company No gloves created a pair of haptic gloves that transmit vibrations and create resistance to the hand to mimic the presence of an object. Today, they are already used by the Dutch military, car designer Volkswagen and several universities, for research, training and marketing purposes. Always for the hands, the Italians wear designed finger types to be placed on the thumb, index and middle finger. In addition to resistance and vibration, they allow you to feel cold and heat. They are also currently moving towards professional uses.

Another type of haptic product has emerged: jackets. Actronics, based in Paris, has designed Skinetic, a sleeveless jacket equipped with 20 motors to reproduce different sensations, such as a shower, a blow or the explosion of an explosion. Unlike the previously mentioned companies, Actronika is primarily interested in entertainment usage and consumer sales. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s an easily accessible product: Selling a €500 jacket, Actronika only received €35,000 of the €97,000 it had hoped for in its Kickstarter funding campaign last month.

Researchers go even further. Scientists fromFederal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (EPFL) have invented a second haptic skin: soft and flexible, this artificial skin made of silicone and electrodes can be used both for virtual reality and to help patients in rehabilitation.

Skinetic, a jacket with 20 motors to recreate sensations in the chest, shoulders and back.© Actronika

The sense of smell: soon-to-market devices for professionals

While touch is the sense that has the most obvious potential in virtual reality, some companies are still interested in incorporating smell. Americans eOVR technology have created a device that attaches to a virtual reality headset to deliver aromas at specific times and with varying intensities. They believe their technology can make vocational training more comprehensive for certain professions where the sense of smell is essential, such as firefighting, the military or the oil sector. In the medical world, they have created a relaxation experience that uses sight, hearing and smell to invite meditation.

On the made in France side, it is Olfi that occupies this land. The start-up won the Revolution Start-Up award from Laval Virtual in 2021. The device, similar to that of OVR Technology, offers up to five different aromas for virtual reality experience. The base perfumes come from essential oils, but each customer can be put in touch with a nose (perfumer) to achieve a personalized experience. Right now, Olfy is mainly aimed at professionals for marketing uses, with a release planned for summer 2022.

Vocktail can simulate cocktails from a simple glass connected to water.©National University of Singapore

Taste: still in the experimental stage

Touch and smell are already complicated to transcribe separately in virtual reality, but taste is an even more complex sense as it includes smells and physical sensations such as textures and temperature. Therefore taste can be considered as one of the final obstacles of virtual reality.

Among the inventions in this field, the National University of Singapore has developed VocktailABOUT virtual cocktail. A glass connected to a smartphone app that gives the illusion of drinking a cocktail instead of a regular glass of water. For this, bulbs color the liquid, electrodes stimulate the tongue to give a sweet, bitter or sour taste and aromas are sent to the nose thanks to micropumps equipped with cartridges. It’s a start, but you still need a glass of water in your hand, which is no longer practical in virtual reality.

In Japan, another invention also uses electrostimulation to mimic taste: dsticks that give salty taste to food. At the University of Tokyo, a device even gives the illusion of chewing food by sending electrical impulses to the jaw. This has all been in an experimental phase for several years and may be for a long time, as the simple act of eating is actually complex to simulate.

Today, only virtual reality headsets – capable of stimulating sight and hearing – are truly accessible to individuals. The acceleration of innovation for touch, smell and taste simulators will depend not only on the popularity of the metaverse in the coming years, but also on the type of experience users expect from it.

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