VR still stinks, and its stench has many notes. It stinks of rich white men, who are hugely overfunding and constantly supercharging technology that is always on the cutting edge of a breakthrough. It has a festering funk of entrenched privilege, despite claims from its vendors that it promotes empathy and inclusion. It’s too expensive and it’s only getting bigger. Meta and the crypto community’s forays into virtual reality should make it more putrid. It also smells, some complain, undercooked: in VR, no one has legs. But maybe more than anything, the metaverse stinks because it doesn’t smell like anything.
The sense of smell is the blind spot of virtual reality. Most VR technologists don’t even notice the absence of odors or worry about its consequences, despite the fact that compelling olfactory technology becomes available.
The sense of smell is undoubtedly our the most real meaning – the meaning that most grounds us in reality. If virtual reality is to deliver its potential, it must wake up and smell its foul odor.
before turning your nose to Smell-O-Vision 2.0, find out what breathing can do for you.
Smell helps us detect incoming threats. We don’t eat foods that smell bad and we stay away from a hint of smoke or gas. We are evolutionarily hardwired to react quickly to smells and make lasting judgments about them. Detecting threats through smell also reminds us that we are vulnerable and blurs the boundaries between our body and the environment. All of these factors deepen immersion, one of the primary goals of virtual reality.
Smell also raises emotional issues and situates an experience within our personal stories. For sight, hearing, taste, and touch, a stimulus moves from the sense organ to the evolutionarily more recent thalamus, which handles complex processing skills. The sense of smell is different: it’s a whole old brain. Smells bypass the thalamus, traveling directly from the nose to the olfactory bulbs located behind where the glasses rest on your face. This tongue-like protrusion of nerves both processes smells in the brain and is closely linked to older brain regions, particularly the amygdala, which handles emotion, and the hippocampus, which handles memory. When an important memory is formed, you usually feel emotions. If you also smell something, memory, emotion and smell will merge. That’s why smells evoke memories with such startling vividness: the bright, acrid hit of chlorine slathered with stale sweat that undoubtedly takes you back to the locker room of your high school swim team; the fluffy mix 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 solidly with yours for 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—via body odor alone. Parents can identify their newborns by smell, even after a brief acquaintance of ten minutes. Feel is intimacy made sense. His knowledge precedes words. Smell makes people uncomfortable because it smashes all the limbic buttons and leaves us speechless. Unlike vision, which monitors and controls a scene from an emotional distance, smells act on us instantaneously and make us renounce our free will. All of this can deepen the immersion.
More importantly, smell is important because all of our senses link together and build on each other. Smell is a “supporting” sense: not always noticeable, but often operating powerfully under the radar, and easily activating 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 condition as horrible. Covid anosmics suffer from higher rates of depression and anxiety. They lose interest in sex as well as food because taste is so dependent on smell. Most of these people regain their ability to smell, but it can take months.