VR still stinks, and its stench has many notes. It reeks of rich white guys, wildly overachieving and constantly overhyping technology always on the verge of a breakthrough. It has an ingrained funk of privilege, despite its purveyors’ claims that it fosters empathy and inclusion. It’s too expensive and only getting higher. Meta and the crypto community’s forays into virtual reality make virtual reality more putrid. Also, some complain, it smells undercooked: in virtual reality, no one has legs. But perhaps more than anything, the metaverse stinks because it doesn’t smell anything.
Smell is the blind spot of virtual reality. Most VR technologists don’t even realize the lack of smells or care about its consequences, despite the fact that compelling smell technology is becoming available.
The smell is definitely ours more real sense: the sense that most grounds us in reality. If virtual reality is to deliver on its potential, it needs to wake up and smell its sickening stench.
Before turning with your nose in Smell-O-Vision 2.0, smell what it can do for you.
Smell helps us detect incoming threats. We won’t eat food that smells like spoiling and we stay away from a touch of smoke or gas. We are evolutionarily programmed to respond to odors quickly and make lasting judgments about them. Threat detection in smell also reminds us that we are vulnerable and blurs the lines between our bodies and the environment. All these factors deepen immersion, one of the main goals of virtual reality.
Smell also raises emotional stakes and situates an experience within our personal histories. For sight, sound, taste, and touch, a stimulus travels from the sensory organ to the brain’s most evolutionarily recent thalamus, which handles complex processing skills. The smell is different: it’s all old brain. Odors pass through the thalamus, traveling directly from the nose to the olfactory bulbs located behind where the glasses rest on the face. This tongue-like nerve protrusion both processes smell in the brain and is closely entangled with older brain regions, specifically the amygdala, which manages emotions, and the hippocampus, which deals with memory. When an important memory is formed, you usually feel emotions. If you are also smelling something, the memory, emotion and smell will merge. That’s why smells evoke memories with such surprising vividness: the bright, acrid hit of chlorine undercut with stale sweat that places you unmistakably in the locker room of your high school swim team; the mixture of rose water, burnt toast and cigarettes that evokes your grandmother’s love.
Non-threatening smells also guide us in surprising ways. Smell helps you choose a mate whose immune system would combine with yours to produce strong offspring. (It also plays a real if less understood role in non-heterosexual mating.) You can sense other people’s emotions (fear, happiness, disgust) just by body odor. Parents can identify their babies by smell, even after acquaintances are as brief as ten minutes. smell is intimacy made sensational. His knowledge precedes words. Smelling makes people uncomfortable because it hits all the limbic buttons and leaves us speechless. Unlike vision, which studies and monitors a scene from an emotional distance, smells act on us instantly and make us relinquish our agency. All of this can deepen the immersion.
Most importantly, smell is important because all of our senses link together and build on each other. Smell is a “support” sense: it’s not always noticeable, but it often works powerfully under the radar, easily triggering strong emotions, judgments, and memories without conscious thought.
In contrast, the loss of smell, anosmia, is almost invariably described by those who have had the disease as horrific. Covid anosmics suffer higher rates of depression and anxiety. They lose interest in sex and food, since taste depends a lot on smell. Most of these people regain their sense of smell, but it can take months.