Olfactory Science: Virtual Reality Uncovers New Ways to Enhance Olfactory Senses

Technology has made major strides in delivering crystal clear sights and sounds, but has made little headway in scents.

That could change as researchers find new ways to bring the sensation of smell into the digital world and even find meaningful uses for it.

In the nose

Can you imagine being in an immersive virtual reality (VR) experience that includes scents? Researchers from Stockholm University and Malmö University have created an olfactometer, an odor machine that can be paired with a gaming computer.

To demonstrate its use, the researchers created a VR simulation set in a wine cellar in which players try to guess the aroma “released” by different types of wine.

“The ability to switch from a passive to a more active sense of smell in the gaming world opens the way for the development of entirely new smell-based gameplay mechanics based on player movement and judgement,” said Simon. Niedenthal, interaction and game researcher at Malmö University, in a statement from Stockholm University.

The Olfactometer has four different valves, each connected to a channel that players can control through a computer to create different blends of scents.

The machine, which is attached to the VR system controller, releases the scent when it detects the player lifting the glass.

The game has different difficulty levels with increasing levels of complexity.

“In the same way that a normal computer game gets harder, the better the player gets; the smell game can also challenge players who already have sensitive noses.

“This means the smell machine can even be used to train tasters or perfumers,” said research team leader Jonas Olofsson.

Researchers have made the code for the virtual wine-tasting game as well as plans and instructions for the machine available online in the hope that other useful objectives can be found.

“For those who, for example, have lost their sense of smell after Covid-19 or for other reasons, new technology may mean an opportunity to regain their sense of smell using game-based training,” added Olofson.

Screen for cancer

Last year, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine in the United States announced that they had developed a non-invasive approach to screen for hard-to-find cancers, such as those of the pancreas and ovary.

It is claimed that the smell-based tool, which sniffs vapors emanating from blood, was able to distinguish between benign, pancreatic and ovarian cancer cells with up to 95% accuracy in tests.

The tool has an electronic olfaction system, or “electronic nose”, equipped with calibrated nanosensors to detect the composition of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by plasma cells.

The researchers then used artificial intelligence and machine learning to decipher the VOCs, as previous research has shown that the VOCs released from the tissues and plasma of ovarian cancer patients are distinct from those released by patients with benign tumors.

The researchers said the system has been trained and tested to identify VOC patterns linked to cancer and healthy cells in 20 minutes or less.

They are working with healthcare company VOC Health to commercialize the device for research and clinical applications.

Giving meaning to perfumes

People can lose their sense of smell due to health challenges such as brain damage or Covid-19 infection.

IEEE Spectrum reported that Professor Richard Costanzo of Virginia Commonwealth University in the United States hopes to help people regain their sense of smell through the development of a neuroprosthesis for smell.

It would be a sensor similar to a commercial electronic nose that detects odors and transmits the information to implants in the brain.

The implants – an array of electrodes – will simulate the corresponding signals in the brain.

The concept is similar to how cochlear implants work to help people with hearing loss.

Professor Costanzo’s colleague, Daniel Coelho, professor of otolaryngology at VCU and an expert in cochlear implants, explained: “It’s about taking something from the physical world and translating it into electrical signals that strategically target the brain.

Professor Costanzo demonstrated the functioning of the prototype with a mannequin head adorned with a pair of glasses and electronic devices.

When he presented a vial of blue liquid to a tiny sensor, an LED (representing a brain signal) lit up blue and his phone said it was a cleaning product.

When he stirred a purple liquid, the sensor correctly detected it as mouthwash.

Professor Costanzo and his team are now focusing on the sensors’ ability to detect more smells and find the best interface for pairing with the brain.

A commercial device is unlikely to be available anytime soon, he said, adding, “I think we’re several years away from cracking those nuts, but I think it’s doable.”

Smell screenings

Unlike other technologies, which are in their infancy, here is one that is ready to enter the market.

Nikkei Asia has announced that Sony is expected to launch a scent device next year that will serve as an early warning system for signs of dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

According to Sony, the device will test a person’s sense of smell, as an impairment can be an indicator that the person is on the verge of developing dementia or Parkinson’s disease due, possibly, to worsening neurological functions.

The system, called Tensor Valve, does this by releasing a set of strong scents that must be identified by the user.

The test only takes five to 10 minutes to complete, and the patient’s sense of smell will be rated on a scale of one to eight.

The device will be priced at US$15,900 (RM75,300).

Osamu Hajimoto, vice president of new business and technology development at Sony, the company that makes the PlayStation 5 game console, is exploring ways to use the device in entertainment.

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