A Virtual Reality Experience That Stimulates All Five Senses
A team of researchers aims to create a virtual reality experience that stimulates all five senses. The technology could make VR experiences more realistic, potentially allowing us to visit places and times that would have been impossible in the past.
So far, most VR headsets have only been able to stimulate the sense of sight and hearing. However, scientists have developed ways to include touch and smell in VR environments.
Whether playing Beat Saber or watching a movie, virtual reality offers people the chance to experience sights that they wouldn’t otherwise see. But to be truly immersive, it will need to stimulate all five senses.
The basic VR device consists of a headset with two LCD monitors, which display images for each eye. This stereoscopic effect gives the viewer the illusion of depth and distance.
Special input devices are used to interact with the virtual environment, such as motion controllers and optical tracking sensors. Advanced VR devices can also detect head swiveling, fingers pointing, and body crouching. This enables the device to respond to users’ movements with appropriate changes in the virtual world. However, the technology is not yet capable of stimulating all five senses at once with a high level of realism.
While vision and sound are the primary senses triggered by virtual reality experiences, a number of cutting-edge tech companies are working to expand VR to include touch, smell, and taste. This would allow the user to interact with a simulated environment, rather than simply watch it.
In addition, the speed at which a VR image responds to your head movements has a big impact on how realistic the experience feels. A human can process a visual cue in about 13 milliseconds, but for a VR image to feel natural it needs to respond even faster.
A number of studies explore the use of VR for testing hearing capabilities, gamified training, and increasing accessibility for individuals with disabilities. However, most of these are laboratory tests or simulations that do not test participants outside a controlled setting.
Virtual reality is about bringing realistic simulations to your senses, and while we’re still far from Matrix-level immersive technology, the latest headsets, games, and experiences can feel very real. The most advanced systems also allow you to physically touch or handle objects, and there are haptic suits that simulate the feel of all over body motions.
Some VR experiences have even used olfactory stimuli, such as sea scents or artificial winds. They have been shown to increase the effectiveness of virtual reality exposure therapy for phobias and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Taste and smell are the two hardest senses to bring into VR, but there is work being done in both areas. For example, a recent experience put patrons in a sequoia forest and allowed them to sniff the earthy scent of the trees.
While virtual reality is feast for the eyes and ears, it has been a long time since we’ve seen any olfactory technology make its way into a headset. That could change, however.
Olfaction is a key element of VR that can help users immerse themselves in environments and provide feedback on their experiences. But current olfactory technology is cumbersome and requires large instruments to produce smells, or it’s in-built into bulky VR sets that are impractical for prolonged wear.
ASU’s research focuses on making odor generation fast and easy so that it can be integrated into the user’s VR experience seamlessly. The researchers have demonstrated that they can deliver a realistic smell to the nose with a soft, miniaturized odor generator that fits into a flexible face mask.
While simulating the sense of taste isn’t yet a major feature on VR headsets, researchers are working hard to bring it into the mix. A new device that heats and cools the tongue can simulate different flavors, a development which could open up a range of VR experiences.
So far, sensory scientists have used beverages to experiment with flavor perceptions because it’s easier to change the color of liquid products. But one researcher envisions a future in which a VR headset could make it possible to swap out the ingredients in a real-life meal — imagine enjoying a beef burger without eating cattle or tasting a salmon dish without contributing to overfishing.
Another method of influencing taste is using visuals to trick the brain — something that’s already been done with VR by cheese brand Boursin and Nescafe.