VAQSO adds smell to virtual reality

I love virtual reality and I’m waiting for the day we’ll have full immersion, the day when VR will be almost undistinguishable from real life. To reach that kind of presence, we have to make sure VR emulates all five senses. At the moment two of these five senses are almost ignored in most used VR devices: taste and smell.

I’ve already talked about taste in one of my previous articles and I’ve been fascinated by the experiments of Nimesha Ranasinghe. Taste is strongly interconnected with smell, in fact while we eat we really feel the taste of the food we’re eating using both our mouth and our nose (that’s why when we have a flu everything seems tasteless). Our brain loves to mix information from various senses… and if you read the comments below my post on taste, you can see a video posted by my reader Matias Nassi, that shows an interesting experiment on cookie eating that involves vision, taste and smell:

So, what about smell in VR? Some years ago, at the time of Oculus DK2, there was FeelReal VR: this company produced a mask for Oculus DK2 that completely enclosed your face to let you smell something in VR. It had some kind of preset smells, plus some features to let you feel mist and smoke. I remember reading about some journalist that tried a demo involving this device… a simulation of an adventure inside a tropical forest. Air conditions were so well emulated that he found hard to breath. Someone started talking about possible torture practices using this sort of devices! FeelReal was very interesting, but in the end didn’t get much success. Its website still features an Oculus DK2, so don’t know if they’re still alive (hope so).

FEELREAL VR mask… as you can see, wearing it you looked like Hannibal Lecter or Lord Fener (Image by FEELREAL VR)

Then there has been the Nosulus Rift… but, ehm, it looked more like a joke to me…

Recently a new smell-oriented startup got my attention: its name is VAQSO and it is based in Japan. It got the featured on all the major VR outlets when it managed to raise $600K for its innovative scent emitting device. From the articles I understood that it is a little device that you can attach to your headset using a magnetic cradle and then blows scent particles directly towards your nose. But this didn’t satisfy me, so I tried to get more info contacting directly the team at VAQSO.

VAQSO VR smell scents
VAQSO device (image by VAQSO)

Despite some language difficulties in dealing with Japanese people, I managed to get some answers to my curiosities about this upcoming device. I’ll explain here what the device is and how it does work commenting the interview questions I conducted with them… (thanks to the Amaze team to have reminded me that I should say “conduct an interview” and not “make an interview”!)

How does the device work?

By using API, the scents come out from small holes of the device at the exact timing previously programmed in VR contents. In spite of small amount of scents, it provides pinpoint scents so that you can mute or change scents instantly. You can utilize the device by attaching it to HMD. It can be attached to a variety of HMD including high-end HMD (such as Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PSVR) and smartphone VR (such as Daydream, Gear VR, Google Cardboard).

So, the logic is quite simple: you attach the little VAQSO device to the lower part of your HMD thanks to a special mount (that is magnetic, so you can add and remove the device easily when you don’t need it), then the application triggers when to make you feel certain smell. It’s awesome seeing how the device should be compatible with all most famous VR devices and also all VR engines. On the website, they claim that the API will work with Unity, Unreal Engine and also CryEngine (but is it still alive?). API should be very simple and the programmer could  just write a line of code where it asks the device to emit that particular scent with a certain intensity to add smell magic to his game. API also includes functionalities to connect/disconnect from the device and to get battery status.

VAQSO VR smell scents
A user playing using VAQSO. As you can see the device is very little and fits easily under the headset (image by VAQSO)
Which kind of smells it is able to emulate?

From the device, scents which are previously set inside of it will come out. In terms of scent development, we can create various kinds of scent (basically anything).

This is something that is worth explaining. As far as I know, smells have not some kind of “primary scents” from which you can reconstruct all possible smells… or at least we have still not discovered them. You can read this super-insteresting Quora answer to get an exhaustive explanation of all the problems of this process. And the scents that the human nose can detect are thousands… so how can we integrate all of them into VAQSO? On the website they claim each cartridge has 5 smells… which kind of smells are them?

They are smells specifically crafted for you. So basically you want to add VAQSO to one of your experiences, for instance a magical trip to a candy town. To do this, you contact VAQSO and ask them to craft five scents for you: toffee, cotton candy, chocolate, strawberry and marshmallow (ok, I got hungry writing these names…). VAQSO experts create this fragrances and put them in a cartridge and then send this cartridge to you. Then you can put the cartridge inside your VAQSO device and use the API inside Unity for instance to spray chocolate flavour when the user enters into the Nutella sea. (I definitely would like a VR experience on swimming inside a Nutella sea…)

This business model obviously shows that they’re targeted towards enterprise applications… it is impossible that every user not only buys the device, but also requests custom cartridges that match games they’ve just downloaded on SteamVR. It has more sense that someone making a marketing booth or a VR arcade wants to add smell to one particular experience to make it more immersive and astonishing and so requests some particular scents that are connected with the experience.

How much does a cartridge last?

In the release version, a cartridge will last for a month.

Well, not bad. This means that they are optimizing a lot the smell particles release… a so little cartridge that lasts for a month is great!

Does it function using a battery? How much time the battery lasts?

Yes it does. The battery lasts for 2 hours (in case of continuous duty).

2 hours is maybe a bit too few to run inside all-day-long installations, so I guess that in these cases multiple VAQSO will be needed to serve all people in line. Device can be charged using MicroUSB and this makes me think that using a battery pack can be a life-saver during events (as it has been for me when I showcased a HoloLens solution).

Why do you started it? Why do you think that smell is that important in VR?

VAQSO Inc. started in January, 2017 as a spin-out from ZaaZ. ZaaZ is a company dealing with development of scent-related products and scent promotion since 2009. If UX become including scents, the sense of reality in VR can dramatically increase. The past UX in games, Visual, Audio and Touch (shaking of controller) were the main sensations in the past game UX. VAQSO VR, which combines scents with games, will offer totally new UX for you.

Scent is a super important sense. It is connected with a lot of important areas of our brain and I think that when experiences will start integrating it, we’ll have a more immersive VR.

What does first testers say about it?

WOW this is really amazing! WOW…..I can’t express it, but this is truly great! What to say….OMG…..Foooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!

Ok, actually I wasn’t asking the exact sentences pronunciated by the users, but I really love this answer since it shows the astonishment of the users when they try something new in virtual reality. I’ve had similar reactions when people tried our full body VR solution. These strong emotions that VR makes people feel are what makes me think that VR will surely succeed.

FeelRealVR mask for DK2 has somewhat failed… why do you think you’re going to be successful?

VAQSO VR is proceeding its development focused on following three points. Firstly, being handy in the size. Secondly, muting scents. Thirdly, instant shift of scents. Unless we can satisfy these three points, scents can’t function as a part of UX. Ken [Kentaro Kawaguchi], the CEO of VAQSO Inc., is a designer and developer of more than 20 kinds of scent device in ZaaZ (from which VAQSO became a spin-out) since 2009, and also a perfumer who has created more than 300 kinds of scents so far. As a result of focusing all the resources of the past into one point, he made the world smallest scent device come true, which is able to mute and switch scents from one to another.

Agree with all the above points. FeelReal was some kind of initimidating, since it closed completely your face with a mask. VAQSO is so little that you almost don’t notice it, so it’s surely more comfortable. This is a great advantage of this solution. I think that the great innovation of this device is how it manages to make people smell in VR just by “throwing” little particles of scents toward the nose of the user.

If you remember, in the first answer VAQSO team also highlighted the short duration of smell bursts. This is fundamental to allow fast smell changes: if scents lasted too much time, all emitted scents would overlap with previously emitted ones and this would cause a real mess. It is important that at each moment the users perceives only the smells that the developer wants him/her to perceive.

VAQSO VR smell scents
Sideview of VAQSO: from here you can see the little holes from which the smells come out (image by VAQSO)
Are you going to test it with companies working on taste in VR?

I’m sorry that I can’t answer this question.

If they can’t answer, it means that somehow they’re experimenting with it. Integrating smell and taste in VR would be really amazing!

Can’t the device have the unintended side effect of having the room smelling after extended usage?

The scents from VAQSO VR spread to the area which is as small as a tennis ball. It is very unlikely to happen that smells spread all over a room.

This confirms that the greatest part of their solution is how they deliver the smell to the nose of the user. It is optimized, so that the cartridge can last more; and it is also focused only on the nose, so that the extended use of it doesn’t make the surrounding environment a mess of smells.

What about price and availability?

The price is not fixed yet, but we aim to make it affordable for university students. It is planned to launch in the first half of 2018.

First half of 2018? Not that far away… wow! Maybe it will launch together with new genearation of headsets!

Anything more to add?

There is a mail magazine of VAQSO VR which offers special limited information. If you’d like to know more about VAQSO VR, please contact: inform AT vaqso DOT com to register.

This is very interesting. Device is still under development and some characteristics I’ve depicted here may change over time, so it’s cool having the possibility to be kept updated!

WOW! I’m really thrilled by the possibility to smell scents in virtual reality and feel really immersed inside exotic environments (like… the Nutella sea!). Hope to be able to give a try to this device next year! If you, like me, are interested into this device, use the form at the end of their website to stay updated! (And… if you like registering to newsletter… why don’t you register to mine, too? Look at the right part of your screen…)

(Header image by VAQSO)

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AR/VR developer, startupper, zombie killer. Sometimes I pretend I can blog, but actually I’ve no idea what I’m doing.

I tried to change the world with my startup Immotionar, offering super-awesome full body virtual reality, but now the dream is over. But I’ve still not waken up…