The science of smell: Virtual reality explores new ways to improve the senses of smell

Technology has made great strides in delivering crystal clear images and sounds but it has made little progress in the world of scents.

That may change as researchers come up with new ways to bring the sense of smell into the digital world and even find useful uses for it.

on the nose

Can you imagine being in a virtual reality (VR) experience that includes smells? Researchers at Stockholm University and Malmö University have created an olfactory meter, an aroma machine that can be paired with a gaming computer.

To demonstrate its use, the researchers created a virtual reality simulator set in a wine cellar where players try to guess the scent “issuing” by means of different wines.

Simon Niedenthal, Interaction and Games Researcher at Malmö University, said in a statement from Stockholm University.

The olfactory meter has four different valves, each connected to a channel that players can control through a computer to create a different blend of odors.

The machine, which is connected to the console in the virtual reality system, releases the scent when it detects the player raising the glass.

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

In the same way that a regular computer game becomes more difficult the better the player becomes; the smell game can also challenge players who already have a sensitive nose.

“This means that the aroma machine can be used to train wine tasters or perfumers,” said lead researcher Jonas Olofsson.

The researchers made the code for the virtual wine-tasting game as well as the diagrams and instructions for the device available online in the hope of finding other useful purposes for it.

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

Sniff the cancer

Last year, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and the Perelman School of Medicine in Pennsylvania announced that they had developed a non-invasive way to screen for hard-to-detect cancers, such as the pancreas and ovaries.

The odor-based tool, which inhales vapors emitted from the blood, is claimed to have been able to distinguish between benign pancreatic and ovarian cancer cells with up to 95% accuracy in tests.

The instrument contains an electronic sniffing system, or ‘electronic nose’, with nanosensors calibrated to detect the composition of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by blood plasma cells.

The researchers then used artificial intelligence and machine learning to decipher the VOCs, as previous research had shown that the VOCs released from tissue and plasma from ovarian cancer patients were different from those released by patients with benign tumors.

The researchers said the system was trained and tested to identify patterns of VOCs associated with cancer and healthy cells in 20 minutes or less.

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

Understanding smells

People can lose their sense of smell due to health adversities such as a brain injury or Covid-19 infection.

The IEEE Spectrum reports that Professor Richard Costanzo of Virginia Commonwealth University in the US hopes to help people restore their sense of smell by developing a neuromodulatory system for smell.

It would consist of a sensor similar to a commercial electronic nose that detects smells and relays information to implants in the brain.

The implants – a set of electrodes – will mimic the corresponding signals in the brain.

This concept is similar to how cochlear implants work to help people with hearing impairments.

“They take something from the physical world and translate it into electrical signals that target the brain strategically,” explained Costanzo’s fellow, Daniel Coelho, professor of otolaryngology at Virginia Commonwealth University and expert in cochlear implants.

Professor Costanzo demonstrated how the prototype worked with a mannequin’s head adorned with a pair of eyeglasses and electronics.

When he grabbed a vial of blue liquid with a small sensor, the LED (representing a brain signal) glowed blue and his phone indicated it was a cleaning product.

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

Professor Costanzo and his team are now focused on getting the sensors to detect more scents and figuring out the best interface to pair with the brain.

It’s unlikely that a commercial device will become available any time soon, he said, adding, “I think we’re several years away from cracking those nuts, but I think it’s possible.”

smell check

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

Nikkei Asia reports that Sony is expected to release an olfactory device next year that will serve as an early warning system for signs of dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

According to Sonny, the device will test a person’s sense of smell, where weakness could be an indication that a person is on the cusp of dementia or Parkinson’s disease due, perhaps, to deteriorating neurological function.

The system called Tensor Valve does this by releasing a set of powerful scents that the user must identify.

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

The price of the device will be 15,900 US dollars (75,300 Malaysian ringgit).

Osamu Hajimoto, Vice President of Business Development and New Technology at Sony, the company that makes the PlayStation 5 game console, is looking for ways to use the device for entertainment.

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