PODCAST: The Benefits of Smell in Virtual Reality
Virtual reality glasses and audio have created worlds both real and imagined for a wearer to explore. Another sense—smell—is the new frontier, and the benefits for individuals with PTSD, and others in specialized jobs, can be substantial. OVR Technology worked with us to create parts that led to its ION device, which presents users with smells that trigger memories that can lead to therapeutic benefits. Guest: Erik Cooper, head of design and co-founder at OVR Technology.
Erik Cooper: Scent is sort of an underappreciated sense, you know, a lot of people when surveyed would rather have their cellphone and then their sense of smell, but it's tied directly to your limbic system. And when you smell something, especially a powerful smell and it's combined with the imagery and the audio and all the things you create memories that are very powerful and long lasting.
Steve Konick: I'm your host, Steve Konick, thanks for checking us out.
Steve Konick: Back in 1960, there was a filmmaker named Hans Laube and he introduced us to something called Smell-O-Vision. It was a device that triggered odors that flowed through an audience while they watched a movie that was called The Scent of Mystery. About 20 years later, John Waters brought us Odorama, a scratch-and-sniff card that you used when the film Polyester cued you to do it. It was a proud moment for this Marylander and John Waters fan. Yeah, it's all low tech science fiction and entertainment when it comes to movies. But in truth, these filmmakers were on to something. Smell is a powerful way to activate memories. We've come a long way since then. Sense of smell can be used for much more serious purposes, too. Vermont's OVR Technology has developed a device called the ION. It emits odor-based cues through a mask teamed with VR goggles. It can have therapeutic benefits, such as helping patients with PTSD or maybe people dealing with stress and anxiety. The device required some intricate parts and OVR worked with Protolabs to manufacture them using Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing technology. Joining us to talk about it is the head of design at OVR Technology, Erik Cooper.
Steve Konick: Welcome to The Digital Thread, Erik.
Erik Cooper: Hi, Steve, thanks for having me.
Steve Konick: Glad to have you. So I think the first question that comes to everyone's mind at this point is where did the idea for the ION come from?
Erik Cooper: Well, a little context. So, back in 2015 our CEO and myself had a prototyping business prior to OVR and we were located in a maker space here in Burlington called the Generator. Across the way from us was Aaron Wisniewski, who's now our CEO. He was starting up a scent company and we were doing prototyping and furniture, all kinds of custom work for various people. One day a local technologist sort of came in and had a VR set up, the most advanced at the time. Aaron and Matt tried it out and sort of came back to the booth and were conspiring and said it would be really cool to put scent in there. That was a really powerful experience. It sort of sat on the shelf for a little while. We didn't actually start the company until 2017. At the time, in 2017, a local college at Champlain College wanted to have some of their VR development students work on a project with a company outside and get some real-world experience. We had the idea pitched to them or they pitched to us. I don't remember which way it went to try to add some scent in a really rudimentary way to an experience that they were developing. We threw together a prototype that was pretty simple. It was sort of like the mouse on the wheel at this point compared to where we are. But we were able to prove the idea out in reality. And a local investor who Dave Stiller, who became one of our founders, sort of said, hey, why don't we put some weight behind this and see what you guys can do. So at that point, we started the company with sort of the mission of improving virtual reality, increasing immersion. My thought was that better VR could equal better reality, essentially to help people with training, training in dangerous circumstances, therapeutic uses, meditation, mindfulness. And I think at the time we didn't really know what we were getting into. I think that we sort of made it and the gears started turning and we decided to take the company off at that point. And I haven't looked back since.
Steve Konick: It really that is the thing that's been missing from virtual reality experiences, is that scent of smell. Well, the sense of smell. So how exactly does it work?
Erik Cooper: We started the company out with this idea that we called the architecture of scent, which is sort of three pillars, if you will. There's hardware, software, and scentware. And on the scentware side, we're basically able to go out and reverse engineer real world smells if they haven't already been formulated and take that, sort of analyze it, and make our own safe water-based scents that go into a device. On the hardware side, we were able to make a very small, piezo-driven atomization technology that we hope to make smaller. That basically takes the liquid and atomizes it into microscopic particles very, very quickly on command from the software. So basically we had to create all three elements of the product and the software you basically can go in. It's like a plug in to Unity or Unreal and you're able to sort of tag objects in there with different parameters for scent. And that can include particle systems and wind. It can include sort of bursts, if you will, like an explosion. Spheres, different shape cones and things that allow you to sort of program in the scent interaction, if you will. So then the headset is able to read your interactions and tell our device, hey, it's this far away it's only going to smell this much when you put it real close, it smells more or there's wind blowing in X direction. Put your face in there, you can smell it. So yeah, we were able to sort of bring all those three components together to create the products and the experience.
Steve Konick: And that's really fascinating to me because we know the sense of smell is intimately tied to memory. Whenever I smell creosote, it reminds me of the time I went to the Arizona desert and there was a thunderstorm. Everything smelled like that. I mentioned Smell-O-Vision earlier, kind of in fun way. It was a failed experiment because the odor didn't disperse evenly across the audience. Some people got blasted, others just got a little whiff for 10 seconds after the visual cue. And some people never smelled anything at all. So how do you make transmission of the smell to the brain connection accurate, to spur memory?
Erik Cooper: Well, it has a lot to do with timing. It has a lot to do with how much scent molecules are going out. You know, it's very easy, actually, to plug something in the wall and smell the whole room up. It's actually very difficult not to do that. It's very difficult to put out such a small amount of molecules that only the user can smell them.
Steve Konick: To achieve that kind of subtlety.
Erik Cooper: Yeah, exactly. And as you said, you know, scent is sort of an underappreciated sense. You know, a lot of people when surveyed would rather have their cellphone and then their sense of smell, although COVID is changing that, a lot of people have lost their sense of smell due to COVID and we're starting to get a different perspective on it, but it's tied directly to your limbic system. And when you smell something, especially a powerful smell and it's combined with the imagery and the audio and all the things, you create memories that are very powerful and long-lasting, like the one you're talking about.
Steve Konick: So who are some of the people who have benefited from the ION and can you share some of their stories?
Erik Cooper: Well, when we first started out, we started to really dig into the yard - who was using it for real positive uses, then we came across Skip Rizzo and the Brave Mind Project at USC at the time. And Skip had been working for years with veterans with PTSD and VR and sort of video games and really working in a therapeutic sense with a new technology. And he was getting scent with this device that was really rudimentary, it was stinking up the whole room. And unfortunately, the smells that you need for that particular therapeutic use are pretty nasty: blood, vomit, feces, burning this, burning that, they're really, really terrible. We went out to USC and sort of brought a very early prototype out and showed it to him and said, hey, look, it doesn't stink the whole room up, the scents are very accurate. He right away latched on and said, geez, I think we could use this. So we've been building a partnership with him since then. And that was really early in 2018. Other than that, we've been doing some really great clinical study up at UVM that's being peer reviewed now and will be released in the next couple of months that we can speak to more at that point. There's some just great stuff coming from it. I can't say anyone individually who used it. There were 50 people in the study. It was great. So we're starting to collect some data around this. And that's really what's important, I think, is that in order to validate a use case, we really need to show some of these real world impacts. Another one that's really neat that's come up lately is the idea of using VR for empathy. So doing educational content around global warming or societal issues and things like this.
Steve Konick: Ok, that's fascinating. And I have to ask you how that works, because it's not quite clicking in my head right now.
Erik Cooper: Yeah, I think it's just that the VR experience with more haptics involved is very powerful. So if people can have these experiences in a way that really sticks with them, I think we're doing a good thing. The goal, though, is obviously to keep that with the idea of doing good for reality. It's really easy to sort of go down that wormhole of like, boy, VR really could be this alternate thing that people don't even leave, you know. So for us as a mission-driven company, we really want to do good. And that's the idea.
Steve Konick: I want to talk about the design considerations, because this had to be designed in a very particular way to ensure that the scents got to the person in just the right way. What are some of the challenges that you faced as you were designing the ION?
Erik Cooper: Well, you know, it took a lot of iterations. I'm a firm believer in sort of that you just throw a lot of stuff at the wall and see what works. So we had started out the wall sketches and really started doing some basic 3D prints on the floor machine in the office or FDM machines that I have here at home. And sort of just coming up with what kind of form factor we were looking for, how it would work, how the airflow and move. Can you feel your breath? There's just a lot of considerations. Also in terms of styling, I wasn't really interested in making a device that really screamed, look at me. It's more about looking like it's meant to be incorporated into modern headsets. First off, we're attaching to the mask. And I think ultimately the end goal is to make our technology so it can be incorporated into the mask. So working with an OEM to eventually fully incorporate will be the end goal. But for us, it was to create a small chamber of air where you need it to just really be able to get that sense quickly and then basically remove it quickly, which is mostly done in people's breath. They breathe it in, they breathe it out. And like I said, all the formulations are water based and approved and safe. So a couple of the technical hurdles right off the bat, we're just the size of the device and the atomization technology shrinking that down small enough to make some sense to have on today's modern HMDs.
Steve Konick: And the specific parts that you manufactured to create these prototypes, was there anything really special about the dimensions, the specifications, anything like that that proved to be challenging for you?
Erik Cooper: Well, yeah. You know, many printing processes like have ups and downs. You know, all of them have some positives and negatives. And that's trouble with FDM is all those grooves. Right? So we couldn't have a group of molecules getting stuck in there. Right. So all that became an obvious problem right off the bat. I needed a bunch of thin wall features. We wanted to keep the weight down. So it's important to really, really make sure that it wasn't heavy at all. Utilizing the additive manufacturing process we can really throw a lot of stuff on the wall, like I said, quickly, and try it out and get to a better and better, better product where we're basically at now or we're kind of ready to go.
Steve Konick: Did you try a variety of materials to create the parts or you always had your mind set on one?
Erik Cooper: Like I said, the resin printer and in the office did a good job of sort of getting us some ideas. And but there's a lot of issues with those parts in and of themselves. And yeah, and I had been really researching and studying up on where 3D printing has been heading for a long time. I just sort of intrigued by this process. I've used it for the last 15 years to develop ideas. So, I keep an eye on the industry and where people are going with it and what's happening, and I have been watching HP with the MJF machine for a while. And I said, you know, let's test out some of those parts, obviously, because they look great. So we wound up doing that with you guys and Protolabs.
Steve Konick: So that's why you chose Multi Jet Fusion? It was the idea that the parts were just as precise as you needed them to be.
Erik Cooper: As precise, lightweight, made in nylon 12 material. What we were looking at we needed to be durable. There is the ability to do coatings on that material. Those parts are dyed black, but they look great. There's just a lot about it. I think the powdery sort of surface that can be left behind on some SLS processes wasn't really right. And the MJF parts just made a lot of sense in terms of almost feeling like a real component.
Steve Konick: Gotcha. How did you connect with Protolabs in the first place, because you did work with us for a while there?
Erik Cooper: Well, yeah, I actually used you guys for some stuff prior from our old prototyping business. So I was familiar with you and obviously had been out to Minneapolis working for Room and Board at one point in time. And, you know, I had some family in Minneapolis. I have a soft spot anyways, but I got online and had my .STLs ready to go and started pricing out. Everyone's done a really good job over there making that coding system quick. You know, I think one of the big problems for many years was just emails. You know, if you can take emails out of my life, I could work that much faster, you know? So I.
Steve Konick: I think everyone agrees with you there.
Erik Cooper: So, yeah, hop on there. Throw a .STL on and see what the price is and push go and have wonderful parts in your hands in 3 to 5 days is amazing for us.
Steve Konick: Were there any special specifications that we had to follow in manufacturing those parts for you?
Erik Cooper: You know, this being just the shell to our heart, it wasn't so bad. It's really that I had done so many iterations pretty quickly. I had sent a part and then almost immediately got it back and said no good. Make changes. Send it right back out, get it again. You know, I thing about the MJF parts are the dimensional accuracy is about where we needed it. The finish was really good. I've actually got now into doing some vapor smoothing on those parts, which has made them absolutely perfect for our needs. You know, I think that just the speed and honestly, the part cost is great because I can have one hundred parts made at a really competitive price and we don't have to get a new injection molding yet. And for us, there's no reason to. We have a lot of changes to make. We have clients that may need something specific and I'm able to change that on the fly right now and make any quantity of parts I want at a logical per part cost. That's a really powerful thing for us. I think we have to stay really lean and flexible right now as a company because we're in a changing market where adoption is going up and down. And it's really hard to say exactly where it's all going to fall and who we may partner with is always changing. And so we're constantly trying to adjust the product to people's needs and our own needs to optimize it. It's a really powerful thing that the MJF is given us. It's an ability that we didn't have for many years before.
Steve Konick: So what are some of the applications you've seen for your technology at this point?
Erik Cooper: Well, I'm going to be honest. When we made it, we really didn't know sort of how many applications there is going to be. So the goal of the company was to really do something positive. So we started to head toward healthcare, telehealth, mental health, especially with COVID and the anosmia stuff that's come up. We've had people come to us and say, you know, I have this use that we oftentimes didn't even really consider as a possibility. So really what we're looking at right now is being a support structure, a support device for mental health therapy. Where, let's say you get in our setup for 15, 20 minutes prior to going into therapy. They find that people are much more receptive to the therapy at that point. They've sort of been detuned and lower down and more accepting of talk therapy or whatever it is that they're going to do. Obviously. Next up is training and enterprise uses. There's so many dangerous scenarios that whether it's soldiers, firefighters, police or first responders that people come up to and their experiences and they're very hard to train for and they're very dangerous and it costs a lot of money. And you can imagine how do you simulate a chemical attack? You really can't. You can't teach someone to smell these four things if they're all toxic. You know, the training stuff has really come on pretty strong lately where there's just a lot of different scenarios, whether it's arson investigation or some firefighting technique for a gas leak or whatever it is, using your nose in those situations is going to save your life. So that uses really, really come into the picture lately. I think that was probably the one that we thought of first where we were like, yeah, I imagine that'll work. Like, there'll be a market for that, you know? And there was. There is. And there was a lot of companies embracing VR as a training technique. Now, because you can send someone a headset and do the training at their house if you want, you don't have to have everyone go to some place to do some dangerous thing anymore. And then, like I said, the Global Village Project that we're doing right now, which is about a village in Samoa that due to global warming is going to disappear. So basically, you start out in this beautiful bucolic environment on the beach and it's gorgeous. And then all of a sudden this storm kicks in, the ocean rises and everything becomes destroyed and smelling terrible. And it's a very powerful experience. So those experiences are really meant to try and create some level of empathy and understanding. And that's a very powerful learning tool. So we've gotten into that as well lately.
Steve Konick: What's the experience like for somebody who uses VR goggles with the ION? For example, somebody who has PTSD? Do you find is there anything statistically that shows that it's a much more intense experience for them?
Erik Cooper: Well, our partners, a Brave Mind, Skip had really done a lot of the legwork on that. And he has a lot of the numbers. I can't really speak to them to his research. Exactly. The missing part of his project was an actual device that could sort of quickly do the things that he wanted. But we do know, because scent is so powerful that it really does influence cognition and behavior and decision-making. And you can see that some grocery stores pump fake bread smell in the bread aisle.
Steve Konick: You know, Subway does that.
Erik Cooper: There's a lot going on subconsciously. Right.
Steve Konick: You know, that oddly intense bread smell.
Erik Cooper: So, you know, different clothing companies use it to. It's amazing. So what they're doing is really influencing your buying decisions. Right. And if it works for that, it definitely works for a lot of other things. So, you know, we kind of leave a baited hook. Like, I'm interested to hear people come back and say, I think I could use it for this. And then we say, OK, you take a device and prove it out. We would love to see the data, you know, love to use you as a use case. And you're just further validation for our vision.
Steve Konick: I guess I have to ask how true to life are the smells that you create in the scent cartridges because it is so crucial to get that memory to click in? It must be very difficult to create those.
Erik Cooper: Yeah, some are a lot more difficult than others, to be honest with you. Sarah our chemist and Aaron our CEO spend a lot more time in that realm than I do. But we all do have to sometimes do torture testing, as I'll call it, in the office, which, you know, I remember one time in our old office there was a cafe down the hall and we had opened up some vial of something that came in and we literally cleared the whole building out. And I think they were going to call the fire company or something because, yeah, some of these molecules are insanely powerful. And, you know, there is a lot out there already that people have figured out and formulations and things. And then there's a lot to uncover. There's big end companies in this world that spend millions, if not billions of dollars doing exactly this. We still do it pretty renegade, but we use a lot of high tech tools to get there. And we have a lab in our new office. So we're able to actually create much of the sensory in-house. From the perspective of Sarah and Aaron, though, it is, you know, part science and part art. There's still some sculpting going on. And with the help of the audio and visual aids, sometimes things you may say, oh, that's this kind of rose or that kind of rose. But if you're looking at a rose and VR and you have it in front of you and you smell it and you're probably not even be able to tell the difference between two different species, right?
Steve Konick: Not me.
Erik Cooper: Maybe somebody would.
Steve Konick: I couldn't even tell you it was rose, to be honest with you. What your company is about is that combination of hardware and software and scent. And that's what makes OVR very unusual and the ION unusual.
Erik Cooper: Yeah, and it's a really difficult thing. I think with such a small team of people, we've been able to do something pretty amazing here to thank everyone for working so hard toward the end goal. And I don't know that we even realize how far it could go. A big goal would be to get integrated into an HMD that's really specific for training our healthcare so that it's not an add-on any more. It's really just a part of the VR experience.
Steve Konick: So what's the most often requested scent?
Erik Cooper: From the military perspective there's a couple that are very difficult diesel fuel and things like this that, you know, it's hard to reproduce sense that actually have really toxic components in them. You can't use those. So I think we have a campfire one that's amazing. We have an experience where you roast marshmallows around the fire that's really powerful, really sort of brings people back to a certain time in their life or some memory around a campfire that's really powerful and good. I think that's where the technology really shines. One that we have that I really respond to is cut grass. That makes me feel like a little kid on the soccer field again or something. You know, it's incredible.
Steve Konick: So what's in the future for OVR Technology?
Erik Cooper: Well, I think we're going to continue to work on, you know, getting into the health care space, try to work more closely, almost with insurance companies at that level. The goal would be to get a sort of product out there that maybe you send someone the entire kit for some issue they have utilizing this technology. We’ll continue to work on the mental health aspect. And I think the training stuff that's come along is really looking promising. There's just so many uses in that realm, especially for firefighting. We are doing a sort of early-on test project with a fire company right now that looks pretty promising. That could go big. So we're really excited about that. And, you know, stuff comes up. I don't even know. Someone may come along and say, hey, this helps people with Alzheimer's or something like that. I don't know. There's just so many possible uses at this point. It's very exciting.
Steve Konick: Yeah, I love the mission-driven sensibility of the company, that's really a great feature. Erik, it's been really great to have you on The Digital Thread. Thanks very much for joining us.
Erik Cooper: Thank you so much Steve. This is a great.
Steve Konick: And that's this edition of The Digital Thread, I want to thank our guest, Erik Cooper, from OVR Technology for hanging out with us. And don't forget to subscribe to future Digital Thread podcasts through one of our host sites, Apple, Google, or Spotify, or listen to us on our website. The Digital Thread is produced by Protolabs an international manufacturing company with locations across North America, Europe, and Japan.