The odorama, this technique consisting in diffusing odors in connection with a film or a documentary, already has a long history: from the end of the 1950s, directors wanted to solicit the nose of the spectators, and not only their eyes and their ears, with scents – pleasant or not – coming from air vents or scratch cards. This genre remained experimental. Will a new avatar, proposed by a Chinese team, be more successful?
Xinge Yu (Hong Kong University) and his colleagues present In NatureCommunications May 9 several prototypes of a “flexible, miniaturized and wireless olfactory interface for virtual reality”. Clearly, a mask allowing the rapid and targeted diffusion of up to nine different smells, in connection with what the user perceives audiovisually in an immersive headset. “Research on reactive odor-generating systems is still in its infancy”write the Chinese researchers, who note that the bulky appearance and too long response time of these virtual reality devices “limit their fields of application”.
The solution they propose to overcome these drawbacks is based on small “odor generators” whose principle is simple: encapsulate different odorous molecules in a paraffin wax that just needs to be heated using a miniaturized electrical system to make it hatch the scent almost immediately. Arranged by two directly on a flexible support stuck under the user’s nose, or by nine in a mask covering the mouth and nose, the capsules in question release their fragrance in 1.44 seconds, which makes it possible to “stick” with the scenario of the sequence perceived through the virtual reality headset.
The article of NatureCommunications details all the precautions taken to miniaturize the device, limit its power consumption and precisely control the diffusion time of the odors, even allowing the mixing of two perfumes. The materials chosen were themselves olfactory neutral. Xinge Yu ensures that the heating system does not create discomfort for the user. Could he be inconvenienced by certain perfumes, knowing that some individuals already resent the disorientation sometimes induced by the immersive atmosphere created by virtual reality headsets? “For pleasant smells, there will be no discomfort”answers the researcher.
The odor generators have been patented, and the manufacturing cost of the mask will be less than 80 dollars (73 euros), estimates Xinge Yu, knowing that the olfactory part needs to be recharged after about four hours of use. For the time being, the team has not contacted industrialists in the virtual reality sector for a possible marketing of the mask. It plans to further miniaturize the generators to offer a richer range, with a catalog of around thirty flavors already tested.
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