Virtual Reality + Digitizing Scent with Simon Niedenthal and Jacki Morie

Art and Olfaction. Photo Credit Jackie Morie.

Virtual Reality + Digitizing Scent with Simon Niedenthal and Jacki Morie

By Nancy K Turner



Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across

thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.

Helen Keller


Tucked away on a quiet area of Chung King Road lies the modest Institute For Art And Olfaction, which recently hosted a talk entitled “Virtual Reality and the Digitizing of Scent.” The two knowledgeable and enthusiastic presenters were Simon Niedenthal and Jacki Morie. Niedenthal is a Professor of Interactive Design at Malmo University, Sweden and author of such articles as “Beyond Smell-O-Vision: Possibilities for Smell-based Digital Media” and the catchy “Vile Perfume: The Future of the Zombie in the Smellscape of Gaming,” and Jacki Morie an artist, scientist and educator who was a Senior Research Scientist at the Institute for Creative Technologies and inventor of the scent collar (more on that later).

The tiny space was jam-packed with fifteen (including me) enraptured geeks as Niedenthal began the presentation with a fascinating history of scent and entertainment. Those of a certain age may remember Smell-O Vison, Sensorama and of course, scratch n sniff (this was not mentioned but I got curious and looked it up). It turns out there was a slew of experimentation in the late fifties and early sixties linking smell, touch and other senses with entertainment. Hans Laube invented Smell-O Vision (vaguely queasy title, I think), which was supposed to release a scent or odor during a film to augment the action on the screen.  It was only used in one movie, the aptly entitled “ Scent of Mystery” (1960)!

Photo Credit The Institute for Art and Olfaction.

Apparently the first reference to the modern concept of virtual reality came from a 1938 (yes!) science fiction short story festively entitled “Pygmalion on Spectacles” in which the author described a fictional event involving a system where the person wore goggles and could see a hologram, and was subjected to smell and touch. This is remarkably close to what Niedenthal and Morie are attempting to do almost 80 years later.

In 1962, another inventor by the name of Morton Heileg created “Experience theater” to incorporate all of our senses- sight, sound, smell, touch and motion. His prototype “the Cinema of the Future,” called Sensorama, was a mechanical marvel that apparently still works even today. A person would sit down at what looks like an arcade game to peer through the viewfinder. Obviously way ahead of its time, the inventor used stereoscope 3-D imaging in a wide-angle view, stereo sound, a seat, which tilted, and included tracks for wind and scent to create the total sensory experience.  He was unable to secure the funding to further develop the machine and eventually went to work for Disney. Think of the current California Adventure, which incorporates the scent of citrus as you “fly” over orange groves on seats that vibrate to simulate movement.

It’s not all fun and games though. Niedenthal is working with psychologists to explore whether regular “smell” training through smell-enabled digital games can improve memory and expand sensory capability as a tool to fight dementia. Jacki Morie discussed the application of scent as a training device for firefighters (different fires smell differently whether they are fast moving grass fires or other kinds). Apparently psychologists think that adding smell to virtual reality can help veterans who are suffering from PTSD recreate the traumatizing event and perhaps heal them. In a complex scent, most people can only pick out three ingredients (not counting the super sensitive and trained noses of sommeliers and perfumers). Denis Dutton in “The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution”, says:

“Unlike colors and sounds, smells are largely built around attraction and aversion: single smells can be ‘mouthwatering’ or ‘sexy’ or ‘repulsive’…In particular, in terms of raw survival, smells associated with revulsion are very likely the most important in evolution…the human digestive system did not evolve to cope with the bacterial dangers of rotted meat; extreme averse reactions to it are therefore a crucial evolutionary survival tool.”

So Niedenthal and Morie are modern pioneers who are, according to Niedenthal, trying to “integrate scent into multi-media computing environments.” But how is this to be accomplished and with what means? There seem to be three types of passive conveyers.  One is a headset that completely covers the head and the scent is sprayed inside the helmet. Disadvantages include claustrophobia and the unpleasant feeling of having a chemical scent sprayed directly on the skin. The second option is a Virtual Reality headset with a small machine that looks like a tiny air conditioner that sprays scent into the air and hopefully reaches the nose of the participant.

Photo Credit The Institute for Art and Olfaction.

The third is Morie’s stylish scent collar which one wears around the neck and smell is emitted much like a diffuser works- from a small tube inside (swabbed with a low tech Q-tip dipped in the appropriate scent). Honestly, the current devices didn’t look much more advanced than the 1962 Sensorama.

At the event, both Niedenthal and Morie admitted to having many trials and tribulations with the technology and, indeed, it only worked half the time. Only one person at a time could use the device and this is what you saw and/or experienced. There were macaroons floating and with the handset one could grab one and bring up to your nose to inhale. Sometimes the magic worked and sometimes it didn’t. When it did, there was a faint smell of either coconut or vanilla. Other times there wasn’t anything at all. Disappointing. It was a slightly melancholy experience and made me wonder if in some future environment this would be the extent of our experience- alone, isolated, one at a time, maybe experiencing forests after their destruction, or seeing extinct animals after their demise, or viewing icebergs and snowy peaks after they have melted!?

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