We’re still working out a sense of touch and physical haptic feedback in virtual reality, but a long-term goal has always been the ability to smell in VR. And the Feelreal Kickstarter project promises to make that happen.
Feelreal has been around for a while. They first surfaced back at GDC 2015, almost the Jurassic Park era of contemporary VR. It took a seriously long time to get from there to Kickstarter. And this is not even their first time. They tried Kickstarter back in March 2015 and didn’t even get to 50% of their $50,000 goal.
But now they’re back with a new device. You can sign up to be notified when they go live on the popular crowdfunding site.
Feelreal’s smell in VR
So besides making you look a little like Darth Vader, what exactly does Feelreal do to provide smell in VR?
This is no ordinary immersive scent device. According to Boost VR,
Feelreal contains what the company calls a “scent generator” that holds replaceable cartridges with nine individual aroma capsules, generating scents such as burned rubber, gunpowder odor, lavender and mint.
The company however is planning to provide a storefront of different 255 scents so users can mix and match as they please, all of them designed by Kiev-based perfumer, olfactologist, and perfume critic Bogdan Zubchenko.
The company promises to use aromas similar to those used in the food industry. That’s reassuring but only up to a point as the latter doesn’t have a perfect track record with additives. But food-grade quality is undoubtedly better than the alternative.
There are some design challenges here. The device is not going to give you 255 aromas to draw from simultaneously. You’re limited to nine at a time, which one assumes will be listed by the VR experiences and games that get on board with the Feelreal project.
A storefront with 255 possible scents is vastly different than the original 2015 Kickstarter project. The early version only offered seven unique aromas which may be one reason why it failed.
You’re only as good as your ecosystem
As with hand controllers, gloves, and other VR peripherals, this will only work if content producers buy into it. Feelreal claims to have already signed up two popular VR games – Beat Saber and Skyrim. They’ve got YouTube VR on board but that will only work if content development is simple. They’ll need a lot more partners to be successful.
As a multisensory virtual reality mask, the device itself is straightforward. It attaches via magnets and Bluetooth to your headset. And they claim a four-hour battery life which is fine for personal use, but not so good for a VR lab or public facility. As always, having extra batteries on hand will be essential.
Total weight is seven ounces which won’t be that noticeable given the current weight of our VR headsets.
The real possibilities are on the haptic side
Feelreal’s press release promises much more than a set of aroma cartridges. In addition to smell in VR, you’ll also have the options of heat, wind, water mist, and vibration. From their December 19th press release.
Imagine the depth of interaction when users can truly feel themselves on a racing track and actually smell burned rubber. Or being able to grasp the feeling of being on a battlefield complete with the intense gunpowder odor. This is what the multi-sensory virtual reality experience is all about.
- Tactile Sensations:
- Water Mist: Users can feel the rain on their cheeks with the ultrasonic ionizing system.
- Heat: Sense the warmth of the desert with safe micro-heaters.
- Wind: Enjoy the cool mountain breeze with two powerful micro-coolers.
- Vibration: Endure the impact when force-feedback haptic motors kick in.
In many ways, the tactile sensations are the most promising aspect of the project. Aromas in immersive experiences are challenging, but it’s straightforward to replicate heat. Or wind. Or water. It would make immersive experiences profoundly more realistic.
Think about how a VR experience of the desert would be enhanced with the feeling of a hot breeze on your face. Or being on a boat and feeling the spray of the waves.
Though you have to wonder how this works out if your virtual trip through the desert gets too hot. Or if the boat your riding begins to capsize.
But seriously, tactile sensations could become new ways to structure narrative experiences in VR. At least, we would begin to move beyond the limits of lighting and sound. There are major possibilities for designing learning experiences in VR and in developing immersive storytelling projects.
And it ups the stakes in the ethical issues we’ll face in blurring the lines between the real and virtual. Right now, our virtual experiences are almost entirely visual – and real enough at that. Add in wind, water, and heat, and they’ll be that much more believable. And harder to assess objectively.
We’ll check our skepticism for now
As you may know, we’ve been deeply skeptical of projects attempting to do smell in VR. The only aroma-enhanced experience that was ever convincing for us was The Tree VR experience that premiered to critical acclaim at Sundance in 2017. It worked because they used real snuffed out matches for the smell of burning wood.
Other than that, our experience has been uniformly negative. Either the aroma was completely off, or it was too intense. It undermined the VR experiences that have tried to use it.
But we’ll wait to see how Feelreal develops. At the very least, they have a lot going for them. There’s a wide range of scents, and the tactile elements have huge potential. Moreover, they were smart to take the aroma development out of the hands of developers. That aspect needs to be managed by a professional perfumer and olfactologist.
There’s no word on when the Kickstarter project goes live. Feelreal will be available for all major VR headsets including Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Playstation VR, and Samsung Gear VR. We’d love to see Oculus Quest on the list by the time they go public.
It’s a fascinating project, and we’ll keep you updated as they move forward.