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Vermont tech firm believes to experience the metaverse, you have to smell it too


How would you like to have the smell of fresh cut flowers on demand, or how about the smell of garbage, if you're into that? Well, that could soon be a thing. The virtual reality market is expanding rapidly, and more technology could go into those VR headsets. As Mikaela Lefrak from Vermont Public Radio reports, some tech entrepreneurs are trying to make the metaverse feel even more real by incorporating the sense of smell.

MIKAELA LEFRAK, BYLINE: At the headquarters of OVR Technology in Burlington, Vt., smell is king. Co-founder and CEO Aaron Wisniewski is a perfume maker turned tech entrepreneur. He shows me his company's invention.

AARON WISNIEWSKI: This right here is the technology. And you can see it's maybe the size of a candy bar. So the cartridge just clips in.

LEFRAK: Inside the cartridge are vials of scents manufactured at the OVR lab.

WISNIEWSKI: That's fresh lemon. This is an herb garden.

LEFRAK: He snaps the cartridge onto a virtual headset, which, if you've never seen one, looks like a massive pair of ski goggles. I pull the whole device over my eyes and nose and enter the metaverse. A flower box full of roses appears in front of me. I lean over, pick one and sniff.

Oh, wow. That's so cool. It really smells like a rose.

It's a bit like a modern-day Smell-O-Vision, Hollywood's attempt from the '50s and '60s to incorporate scent into movies. A machine would pump odors into movie theaters corresponding with the action on screen, like the smell of gun smoke during a shootout. Smell-O-Vision never really worked that well. The different smells would linger and mix together.

But Hollywood was on to something. Judith Amores is a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School focused on scent and virtual reality. She explains our sense of smell helps us feel fully present in a place and create memories.

JUDITH AMORES: The smell of your grandma or, like, you know, the particular perfume of, like, someone. I think those are very, very powerful. It's not the same, just seeing the image.

LEFRAK: Reproducing real world odors in a lab is a challenge. Amores says people are surprisingly good at sniffing out and dismissing artificial scents.

AMORES: Wow. You know, we think that dogs are amazing at smelling. Humans are really - really are. I mean, we can smell 1 trillion different kinds of smells. We truly have a superpower.

LEFRAK: Not all the smells in a virtual reality experience are going to be as pleasant as a rose. I'm reminded of that by Sarah Socia, who develops smells for VR. She shows me some of her vials of scents.

SARAH SOCIA: We have urine, garbage, diesel fuel, gunpowder, blood, dirt, feces.

LEFRAK: OK, this is a weird question, but can I smell garbage?

SOCIA: OK (laughter).

LEFRAK: Oh, yeah. Yup. That's garbage. Cool.

It's easy to laugh about these malodors, as they're called, but they have important applications. They can be used in training simulations for soldiers or first responders.

The market for this virtual reality scent technology is still pretty young, but the VR market as a whole is growing rapidly right now. Wisniewski and his team think that someday scent is going to be just as integral to VR headsets as audio technology is to a smartphone. That's because he believes to really experience the metaverse, you don't just see it or hear it. You have to smell it, too.

For NPR News in Burlington, I'm Mikaela Lefrak.

(SOUNDBITE OF ONI AYHUN'S "OAR003-A") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mikaela Lefrak is WAMU’s Arts and Culture reporter. Before moving into that role, she worked as WAMU’s news producer for Morning Edition.