Scents are coming to virtual reality
“Let’s imagine that you are walking in a virtual world modelled as a forest environment. You see trees and grass, and hear the wind and birds singing in the background. Then you notice a flower. You stop and pick it up and the flower begins to emit its characteristic scent, standing out from the background scent of grass and trees. In this way, the VR experience is complemented by a significant, completely new sensory experience,” says Professor Veikko Surakka, leader of the project.
The Academy of Finland is funding the research project called Programmable Scent Environments (ProScents) with approximately a million euros. The research funding was granted from the Academy of Finland’s ICT 2023 research programme called Programmable World and Advanced Software Techniques.
“Our project produces several significant results. It introduces scents in the multisensory VR world and creates visionary methods for studying both the functioning of the sense of smell and the relationship between memory and olfactory experiences,” Surakka explains.
The project also demonstrates how scents are first measured in the real environment with electronic noses (eNose) that mimic the human sense of smell, categorised by machine learning methods, and finally recreated in virtual reality.
“The scientific ambitions of the project are very high and our aim is to solve challenging problems in basic research. The project has intrinsic value,” Surakka says.
“On the other hand, we enable the connection of a whole new sensory channel to the multisensory interaction in virtual reality,” Surakka explains.
“We are also developing methods that can be used to test the human sense of smell more precisely. This is important because changes in the sense of smell have been found to be related to the loss of memory function,” Surakka points out.
The multidisciplinary project combines several disciplines such as mathematics (machine learning), engineering (sensors and microfluidics), psychology and computer science, medicine, and human-computer interaction.
Surakka has been researching the production of virtual scents for a few years now. Among other things, he and Professors Jukka Lekkala and Pasi Kallio have developed unique technological solutions in which real world odours are first measured (by eNose), then classified (by machine learning), and finally recreated using a scent synthesiser. A scent analysed by the machine has already been successfully transferred from one location to another through a communication network. The research groups of Kallio and Lekkala have also participated in the co-operation, and they take part in the project that is starting.
The key partners in the Programmable Scent Environments (ProScents) research consortium are:
Professor Veikko Surakka from the Faculty of Information Technology and Communication at Tampere University is the responsible leader of the project. He and his research group are in charge of, among other things, the development of VR environments and programmable scents, as well as experimental research on the sensation of the scents produced.
Professor Pasi Kallio from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Technology at Tampere University is responsible for the development of scent synthesiser technologies in the project. Professor Jukka Lekkala from the same research group is responsible for developing methods for analysing the scents in the project.
The project’s international cooperation partners include Professors Thomas Hummel from the Technical University of Dresden, Andreas Dietzel from the Institute of Microtechnology at the Technical University of Braunschweig, Kalle Levon from the Tandon School of Engineering at New York University and Tie Li from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, SIMIT, Shanghai, China.
Professor Veikko Surakka: Faculty of Information Technology and Communication Sciences, Tampere University, veikko.surakka [at] tuni.fi tel. +358 40 557 3265
Professor Pasi Kallio: Faculty of Medicine and Health Technology, Tampere University, pasi.kallio [at] tuni.fi, tel. +358 500 525 546
Professor Jukka Lekkala: Faculty of Medicine and Health Technology, Tampere University, jukka.lekkala [at] tuni.fi, tel. +358 40 849 0931
Photo: Jonne Renvall