Sarah Socia. (Courtesy OVR Technology)
Sarah Socia. (Courtesy OVR Technology)

The Real-Life Benefits of Augmenting the Metaverse With Scents

Sarah Socia, who develops aromas for VR experiences, explains how olfaction can add an element of humanism and presence to virtual and augmented realities.
By Iris McCloughan
July 1, 2022
8 minute read

Across many industries, people are preparing for a seismic shift as the metaverse coalesces with everyday life. While the transition can conjure up a range of emotions, these unified and all-encompassing worlds, experienced through various augmented and virtual realities, present ample opportunities to develop tools for humans to interface with this new technological and cultural frontier.

While many existing VR systems focus on the sense of sight, the Burlington, Vermont-based firm OVR Technology zeroes in on a different sense: smell. By developing integrated hardware, software, and specially designed aromatic cartridges called scentware for its headsets—original devices that operate over Bluetooth and produce nano-particles of scent that can activate in milliseconds—OVR’s team of scientists, engineers, scent designers, technologists, and entrepreneurs seeks to unlock the potential of smell to augment VR experiences. The company often works on efforts related to VR training—using the technology to enhance instruction of roles, particularly those in high-risk industries such as defense, aviation, and fire—and has even developed its own VR wellness experience, a fusion of breathwork, meditation, nature, and scent designed to ease the body and mind. The scents OVR creates run the gamut, including garbage, diesel fuel, blood, dirt, sandy beaches, and woody forests.

But how, exactly, does smell function in virtual spaces? And what can be gained by expanding VR’s sensory reach? To find out, we spoke with Sarah Socia, OVR’s VP of scentware, who leads the firm’s development of scent technology. Here, she explains how olfaction can make for more life-like and profound VR experiences, and how she sees the scented virtual and augmented realities evolving in the future.

Walk me through your process for developing scentware.

Each cartridge holds nine scents. There is half a milliliter of each of those scents inside, and the formulations correspond to a specific odor that we’re looking to utilize in a virtual environment. The process of creating those scents depends on the outcome we have in mind, which could be for wellness, training, or a branded experience.

We start with the outcome, and work backwards to see what scents make the most sense in that virtual environment. Then we create water-based emulsions, which are ninety percent water and ten percent fragrance material. These are then aerosolized within our device, and, when a user inhales, integrated into their virtual environment. The technology is spatial and positional, so a person’s experience of the scent depends on how they’re interacting with the digital landscape.

You have a background in neuroscience, chemistry, and psychology. How does your understanding of those fields inform your approach to your work?

All three disciplines come together when creating a scent experience, because of the subjectiveness of scent and the ways a person experiences scent perceptually. People experience scents individually: Your feelings about a specific scent might be very different from my feelings about that same scent. There’s also the question of context. Take the scent of a campfire. If you’re camping in a virtual environment, and that includes the image and scent of marshmallows, you might find that campfire smell to be very pleasant. But if that same campfire smell appears in a virtual environment of an office building, you’ll have a very different reaction. So there’s a level of perception that comes with the context of the scent, and that draws more on the psychology and neuroscience of scent itself.

Along with that, my background is useful when thinking about how to tap into the actual perceptual act of smelling. It’s a chemosensory science, and understanding it is very different from our auditory or visual systems, since we don’t have the same knowledge about smell as we do about our other sensory modalities.

Sarah Socia. (Courtesy OVR Technology)
Sarah Socia. (Courtesy OVR Technology)

Your work is a stark reminder that VR isn’t just about entertainment anymore; rather, it’s being used to do things like train surgeons and members of the police force. How does scent function in virtual educational spaces?

For any virtual experience, the sense of smell adds a layer of presence. In VR training in particular, being able to include an additional sensory modality can be really beneficial. Some of these training contexts engage with high-risk occupations, like firefighters, and experiencing the smell of smoke adds another level of immersion to the learning. Without a smell component, that virtual training environment is lacking a key sensory input. Being able to integrate your eyes, ears, and nose creates a more meaningful training experience.

Recent studies have also shown the benefits of olfactory VR when it comes to well-being, as it can help reduce anxiety and pain. Tell me about your work in this area.

I work with clinicians who use OVR’s devices to augment their practices, which include detox and rehab clinics, and mindfulness and stress-relief contexts. The latest version of OVR’s wellness product, Inhale 3, has ambient scents to accompany a shore, a waterfall, and other nature-based scenes. This iteration also includes mood-scented orbs—virtual objects that release familiar, but not recognizable, scents.

This is a bit different from the hyper-realism typically used in training contexts, as it’s more focused on creating connections between emotion and memory. OVR developed this with one of its advisors, Dr. Rachel Herz, who’s one of the leading neuropsychologists in the field of smell.

How are you thinking about the future of fusing scent and VR?

As digitizing scent is becoming more and more of a reality, especially with the metaverse and VR, I imagine that as the technologies increase and develop, we’ll move from virtual reality towards augmented reality—where the sense of smell will become more fully integrated into the virtual experience. That will require the technology to decrease in size as a way to become more ubiquitous so the cost of it can come down.

While we’re going to be seeing a lot of innovation in hardware, I also believe we’ll also see a lot of work happen on the virtual reality side to make that technology available to more people. I see a future where the sense of smell and virtual reality can combine to create not only entertainment, but opportunities for commerce. This technology will allow people to experience new things, as well as engage in education and training, in ways that are not specific to certain businesses or occupations, but more democratized—sort of like how we experience the internet now compared to its early days. It will become less siloed in professional and institutional contexts, and more integrated as a whole. Having the sense of smell available as a component of this vast network of experiences will add an element of humanism to further help bring those experiences to life.