Fabrication: Anthrotronix, Inc
Patent Pending in 2004 by Morie, Luigi and the University of Southern California
Jacquelyn Ford Morie (www.ict.usc.edu/~morie)
Historically, the smell-sense is the most ancient of all. Only the olfactory nerves are directly connected to the hemispheres of the brain. Hence it is inferred that the brain itself arose in connection with the sense of smell. The original brain is a smelling-organ. (Millen 1960/2001: 6)
Scents are the most direct path to our emotional centers, and are widely regarded to be the most evocative of any of our senses, conjuring up ineffable scenes from our past at the merest whiff of a familiar odor. Trygg Engen, a noted scent researcher, believes that an experience gets coupled to a smell along with a “hedonistic” valence, which stays with us throughout life. Because of this, the ability of odors to affect us is powerful.
People have a wide range of reactions to odors. What is pleasant to one person may be perceived as obnoxious to another. Familiarity plays a role. Because odors travel to the emotional centers of the brain, the first reaction is usually a strong like or dislike, before we even consciously identify the smell. If we know the smell, it will most often seem pleasant; if not, we will immediately tend to brand it as unpleasant.
My artwork has always been about evoking strong emotions from the person experiencing the work – the experient. Using scents within my virtual environments has enhanced the level of emotional connection I can evoke. It can be the smell of one’s mother’s perfume, or the scent of the ocean, or aged rooms such as those described in the following virtual environment of mine:
The Forgotten Rooms are made of memories. They are old, and still.
They exist only as phantoms; no one has walked these floors for decades. I want the experient to feel as if they had stumbled upon a place that seems familiar, comfortable, remembered, but not quite there. Everything in the two rooms is from the 1930s, the magazines, images on the walls, and furnishings. The place smells old, with hints of fires long extinguished in the fireplace, pipe tobacco scent lingering in the air, age vapors permeating all. The lugubrious sound of a clock ticks away the seconds, so slowly, it seems—counting ages, not seconds. If you wander around these rooms, you may encounter traces of those who might have lived here. A small boy rocks in his painted rocking horse; a shy girl stands by the curtains listening to the sounds of children playing outside.
Being encompassed by scents, in addition to the visuals and the sounds in a carefully crafted virtual environment, makes the experience at once incredibly believable and at the same time magical, and one’s emotions cannot help but resonate.
The problem that needed to be solved when I created the Scent Collar was one that had plagued early efforts to add scents to virtual reality environments. The first scent release devices for VR were machines about the size of a large tower computer. These machines could be programmed to release scents into a space, but the amount was so great that the smell would fill up the room. It would then linger, potentially interfering with the next aromatic experience the participant was to have in the environment.
What was needed was a way to not only release the scent, but also clear it away rapidly, so that subsequent scents would not be compromised by previous ones. I decided that wearing small scent cartridges near the face would provide maximum scent-ability, with minimal amounts of odorant. The original concept then, was to use MEMs technology (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) to minimize the size of these cartridges as much as possible, and accommodate at least ten cartridges that could each hold a unique scent. These scents are mixed from many essential oils to support a desired feeling for each portion of the experience.
For example, the old rooms described in my artist’s statement above were enhanced by a dominate odor that I blended of old pipe tobacco scent, spent fire smell and cedar wood oil. I combined mud, swamp and bat guano scents for the primary smell in a dark, dank cave environment. Sometimes, but only rarely, a scent can be used directly as purchased.
The prototypes shown here were first implemented without MEMs to simply validate the proof of concept. Four mechanical cartridges are implemented into these prototypes. Each one is directed towards the face, with the individual scent (typically an oil-soaked wick) placed in a reservoir at the bottom of the cartridge.
In practice, each scent cartridge is triggered individually to release a specific smell when the wearer enters a specifically marked location in the virtual terrain. When this location is reached, a blue tooth signal is sent wirelessly to the collar, which then opens a valve and turns on a small fan that helps waft the scent to the wearer’s face.
The small amount of odorant molecules thus released clear away quickly, and allow for many smells to be released and experienced in short amounts of time. We have used the collar for four different virtual environments thus far, and also for a controlled experiment in which we showed the value scents to increase memory retention in a simple training environment.