Scent plays a vital role in how people perceive the world and is connected to other senses in powerful and essential ways.

A good example of this, and one that many people will have experienced first-hand if they have suffered a cold, is how the taste of food is affected so strongly by smell, which is why a retail scent diffuser is an essential part of many supermarkets and greengrocers.

It is also a reason cited for why the immersive sensation of virtual reality has struggled to catch on in recent years, despite rapid advances in the technology that affects visual, auditory and tactile feedback.

Even if all of the rest of your senses can be fooled, the nose knows you have not moved anywhere it breaks the illusion.

Over the past 25 years, many companies have tried to find ways to trigger real scents in reaction to virtual stimuli, with mixed results.


New World Smell

The first era of immersive smell technology, Smell-O-Vision, was long before the widespread use of computers, to say nothing of virtual reality, but the second wave of interest emerged just after VR had entered a period of dormancy in the late 1990s.

The story of iSmell by DigiScents was one of the most notable attempts to create a digital smell framework, albeit with internet connectivity in mind rather than virtual reality.

Unfortunately, whilst the technology behind it was fascinating and not necessarily without any inherent merit, it struggled to fulfil a particular need in a dot-com world already saturated by technology startups that were struggling to shape the internet in the way they promised.

It was built on the idea that a collection of scent bases could be combined to create any possible scent a computer needed, but in practice, whilst practically any colour can be printed from a combination of cyan, magenta, yellow and black, hundreds of base aromas are needed to make a convincing smell synthesiser.

Despite iSmell’s best intentions, it would be one of many companies to face a rather ignominious bankruptcy as the dotcom bubble burst, and many scent generation systems would be dramatically smaller in scale and scope over the next decade.

However, as immersion started to become more important to users again, the concept of virtual smell technology also became more appealing to early adopters and investors alike.


Making It Real

In the 2010s, aided by significant improvements in motion sensing technology and computer speeds, virtual reality went from an ambitious but inherently limited proposition to a technology that was far more plausible and applicable to a wider range of industries.

Because of the rise of systems such as the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, alongside a wide range of mobile phone accessories that used Google Googles technology to affordably simulate the immersive 3D elements, VR had quickly become big business again and the old questions of immersion had emerged once again.

Specifically, whilst omnidirectional treadmills allowed for movement in VR, and both visuals and audio were covered, smell was still a concern given how much it connects to other senses and contributes so much to our perception of reality.

One of the most concerted efforts in that regard was the FeelReal mask, which was attached to a set of VR goggles, covering the rest of the face and providing a range of sensory feedback.

Alongside vibration feedback, it could also simulate water mist, heat, wind, and smell, using a system far smaller than the diffuser previously seen with the iSmell.

The diffusing system at the centre of the rather imposing-looking FeelReal mask aimed to provide up to 255 unique scents, although the original prototype seen at the 2015 Game Developer’s Conference only supported seven.

A lot of the technological aspects seemed fascinating to contemporary writers in the field of VR, particularly given the sensory power of scents when it comes to invoking memory and emotion.

However, there were a few problems that seemed to hamper FeelReal’s chances, and since 2020 there has been no update on the progress of the project, leading some to fear that it has been shuttered quietly.

The first issue was in the mask itself. It was bulky, pressed against the face in a way that was not at all adjustable and added extra weight to a device that was already believed to be far too heavy.

Technology website The Verge went so far as to describe it as an “implement of torture” in its early impressions of the technology but was impressed by its technical capability.

After this, however, there were a few years of relative silence whilst the technology continued to be developed before FeelReal hit a roadblock thanks to a surprising piece of legislation.

FeelReal’s diffuser technology involves the use of cartridges filled with base aroma liquids which are heated and enter the nose through vents in the mask in reaction to virtual stimuli.

This technology technically works in a similar way to how an e-cigarette device does, despite being a different device with a fundamentally separate purpose and premise from a traditional vape pen.

However, when the FDA began to crack down on vape devices in 2019, this had a major effect on FeelReal, who were informed that their device qualified under US Food and Drug Administration standards and because all vapes were seen as potentially dangerous, meant that they needed to adjust the project to conform to US law.

During this testing period, a lot of in-person businesses were closed down as a result of a global health crisis, which shuttered the project seemingly for good. Its last update was in November 2020, which claimed the project was still alive, but with no further updates and a closure of social media 

and websites related to FeelReal, many people believe that they will never receive their masks.

There are other plans and proposals in an early stage of development, aided by renewed interest in VR due to the metaverse concept, as well as research that suggests that digital scent technology could help significantly with the VR experience.

Time will tell if any of these will get further than FeelReal and iSmell did.

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Benefit from a free consultation session with no strings attached. Our team is here to help find the perfect scent marketing or odor control solution for your business.

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