January 19, 2023 — An emerging trend in virtual reality — incorporating smell — could be exciting news not just for gaming but for healthcare as well.
A growing number of hospitals across the country are using virtual reality to help patients manage pain, overcome phobias, and calm anxiety. Providers and Patients generally report good results, except for the high price. And VR therapies could start to become more common, especially if insurers start covering the costs.
But despite its potential in healthcare, virtual reality continues to fall short in one respect: we still can’t feel it.
“[Smell] hasn’t been explored enough in virtual reality, but it deserves to be,” says Judith Amores, PhD, Principal Investigator at Microsoft Research and MIT Media Lab Affiliate Researcher. “The potential benefits are incredible.
Amores researched connecting virtual reality to smell to improve a person’s response. In an experiment, she asked participants to wear a VR headset depicting calming nature scenes and a smart necklace she developed capable of releasing a lavender scent. When bursts of lavender were added to the VR, participants reported feeling 26% more relaxed than they did without the scent. A device that monitors brain activity confirmed this: participants’ physiological response increased by 25% when fragrance was added.
The study was small (just 12 people), but Amores says it represents a direction that needs to be explored with more people in peer-reviewed research. A systematic review 2022 research on virtual reality using multiple senses supports it: “Smell and taste are still underexplored,” the review states, “and they can bring significant value to virtual reality applications” — including health.
when we feel something, receptor cells in the nose send messages to the olfactory bulb at the base of the brain. This information is transmitted to the amygdala and hippocampus, areas of the brain responsible for processing memory and emotions, Amores explains.
“Your sense of smell goes directly into the emotional center of the brain,” says Amores. “That means you can literally change how you feel based on how you feel.”
So smell has the power to immerse us deeper in virtual reality, which could make VR treatments faster and more effective, says Amores.
New scent technology could advance research
Although medical research in this area may be slow, the efforts of the entertainment industry could help push it forward. No VR system that incorporates smell is yet available, Amores says, but that could change as soon as this year.
At the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held earlier this month, Vermont-based OVR Technology unveiled a headset with eight primary flavors that can be combined to create thousands of flavors. The ION3, as it is called, is due out later this year.
At the same time, a study published in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies describes a smell machine that was tested with a virtual reality headset from tech giant HTC. The researchers suggest that such technology could, among other uses, help improve “smell training” for those who have lost their sense of smell due to COVID-19.
Stimulating VR Therapies with Smell
Smell-enhanced VR therapies could be explored for all sorts of clinical uses, Amores says, such as treating anxiety, sleep disorderseven Alzheimer’s disease (smell is linked to memory).
Virtual reality “exposure therapy” has previously been used to treat PTSD in military veterans, immersing them in a virtual environment that triggers a traumatic memory, desensitizing them to memory so they learn that their thoughts are in security. A 2021 article in brain research noted that the incorporation of smell into such therapy is “essentially necessary”, as smells can trigger traumatic memories, in some cases more fiercely than sounds. A distressing scent (like diesel fuel or the smell of something burning) could be followed or layered with a relaxing scent like pine, eucalyptus, or cinnamon in a gradual fashion to reduce or even eliminate odor triggers , according to the article. .
Addicts may also benefit from virtual reality exposure therapy, learning to manage or resist cravings triggered by certain cues, certain research suggests. Virtual reality has the power to transport them anywhere – to a bar or party, for example – and the smell of wine or cigarettes can add to the realism needed to spark cravings.
Another application could be surgical preparation, Amores says. A patient has a full VR session with relaxing smells – walking through a forest and breathing in the smells of pine and moss, for example – reduce anxiety before the procedureand potentially reduce the amount of painkillers needed and improve outcomes.
These scents could be deployed again during hospitalization or recovery – with or without virtual reality – to quickly bring the patient back to a calm state. It’s a kind of Pavlovian conditioning that would be easy to replicate, says Amores.
At Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, virtual reality is being researched and used to help patients relieve pain in a variety of conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome and chronic lower back pain.
Melissa Wong, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist specializing in maternal-fetal medicine at Cedars-Sinai, has studied virtual reality for pain and stress relief during labor and birth, possibly delaying the use of an epidural.
“There’s absolutely something about the mind-body connection when it comes to pain,” Wong says, “and using virtual reality could harness that.” Making it more immersive by adding a scent would likely amplify those effects, she adds.
As research continues to highlight the power of smell, we’re likely to see sense increasingly implemented in clinical treatments, Amores predicts. It might not be long before “Smell-o-Vision” comes to a hospital near you.