Olfactory Communications In a Virtual Environment

Journal for High Schoolers, Journal for High Schoolers 2019


Anushka Sheth, Bikrant Das Sharma, Harvey Jarin, Ian Zhang, Jonathon Sneh, Leena Elzeiny, Prayusha Parikh and Vyomika Gupta


Currently, VR systems immerse an individual visually and auditorily, but the lack of  olfactory stimulation is part of the void that separates virtual reality from real life  experiences. The prospect of adding scent as a third dimension to virtual reality prompted  our research of the effects of adding an olfactory feature to virtual interactions, as well as  its effect on the judgement of pleasantness and personality of others met in the virtual  environment. At the start of the experiment, all participants take a personality quiz. The  quiz predicts how much each participant enjoys a certain smell. Each individual then  participates in a conversation in virtual reality with a stranger. Some participants have  scent dispersed during their conversation, and some participants do not. The stranger the  participant meets has scripted responses. Immediately after, each participant answers  questions based on their conversation. The questionnaire quantitatively scores the (1) pleasantness to examine if scents impact the perception of someone and (2) the perceived  personality of the stranger, in order to determine whether olfactory communication aids  in an accurate first impression. This research is aimed at investigating the implications of  integrating olfactory communication in virtual interactions and assessing its effects on the  judgement of the other person’s personality and pleasantness.

1. Introduction

Olfactory communication is deeply instinctual. A scent is first processed by the olfactory  bulb which directly activates the amygdala, the control center for emotions in the brain.  The association between smells and emotions can run so deep that, according to three clinical studies by two psychiatric professors, patients with post-traumatic stress disorder reported feeling guilt and nausea upon smelling an environment associated with the traumatic incident [1]. Currently, technology is slowly shifting to incorporate olfaction machinery into spaces, to bring a new era of immersive reality. In order to simulate the  physical world, one must mimic all dimensions of it, but little research has been conducted  to understand the human response to syntents. 

The purpose of our research is to determine the effect of aroma in a person’s judgement of  the pleasantness and personality of a person who they meet. A personality quiz is given to  the participant to predict their enjoyment of a certain smell. The participant interacts with  another person. During the virtual reality conversation between the participant and the  actor, the scent is dispersed for some subjects without their knowledge. 

2. Background

Virtual reality (VR) is a highly realistic, immersive, and simulated experience incorporating  sophisticated visual and audio elements. Virtual reality is primarily used for educational  and entertainment purposes, as it simulates a realistic interaction. The two participants  interact in virtual reality, through the platform AltspaceVR, a social virtual world where  users create avatars and explore chat rooms. AltspaceVR serves to supplement social  interactions, and connects users worldwide. While AltspaceVR and other such virtual  communication platforms attempt to mimic and replicate real life encounters, many  subtleties humans have in their physical interactions are lost. Most first impressions, as  well as the formation of memories, require tangible visual and olfactory cues that cannot  be conveyed currently through virtual means. First impressions are formed in the  amygdala and posterior cingulate cortex; parts of the brain that process fear and assign  value to objects. The factors involved in the assignment of value and trustworthiness are  largely derived from visual signals, primarily body language. People can evaluate faces on  trustworthiness, status, and attractiveness following even just a brief glance (e.g., 33 ms)  and extra time (100 or 500 ms) only led to a small improvement in the correspondence of  these time-constrained evaluations with an independent set of time-unconstrained  judgments. Perceptions of personality are also based in visual cues, including clothing,  posture, and eye contact. Many such cues, however, are also conveyed through olfaction. 

Yet, such a strong correlation has not always been addressed. The potential of olfactory  communication has been tabled since the ancient Greek philosophers: Plato and Aristotle  described scent as the most animalistic of the five senses [2]. Later philosophers such as  Immanuel Kant agreed because smell did not contribute to the music and art during the Enlightenment. On the other hand, some non-Western cultures glorified their sense of smell [3]. For example, the Bororo people in Brazil consider body odor to be the life force of an individual and the smell of breath to be linked to the soul. 

3. Methods and Materials 

We received a scent machine from OWidgets, a device from the SCHI lab at the University  of Sussex. AltspaceVR was used for the virtual reality world and experience. The VR  headsets used were an Oculus Rift and an HTC Vive. Scents were received from the  Institute of Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles, California. An Arduino board was used to  control the dispersion of the OWidgets machine. The board was connected to a laptop  which controlled the dispersion of scent. 

The experience begins in a waiting room, where participants are ushered in and out. Each  participant takes the scent personality quiz anonymously and the database stores the  person’s scent preferences scored by the quiz. From there, participants are told the  narrative for the experiment: they have left their lives and are in a state which determines  whether they will return to their old life or move on to the afterlife. In the room, the  participant enters the virtual reality world. There is another person in the Virtual Reality  world, and the two users converse. After the experience, they take an exit survey, judging  each others personality and pleasantness.  

An important factor in conducting the experiment relies on the participants perceived  reality as a blinded experiment. The experiment is disguised as a study on the effect of  virtual reality on first impression. Each participant meets an “actor”. An actor is a person  who has memorized his/her responses to the questions and gives the memorized response  when the participant asks them a question.  

After their interaction, the participant steps out of the VR headset and take an exit survey  on the interaction they just had. The exit survey asks the participant to judge the actor’s  personality and pleasantness.  

3.1 Altspace

AltspaceVR is a virtual reality platform that is used as a meeting space for both private and public events. In AltspaceVR, worlds can be built from scratch, which allows for greater customization and control over certain variables (avatars, music, boundaries, setting). In addition to its customization features, Altspace also supports world-building through Unity and in-game app development through its MDK feature. This, in combination with its other features, makes AltspaceVR ideal for our experimental procedure.

For our world, we wanted to create a neutral, non-religious interpretation of the Afterlife.  In order to ensure that the world would not elicit any negative emotions, we also wanted  to make the world as serene and calm as possible. The world we determined that would be  best included the following features: soothing music, a night time and mountain background, a reflective plane, and a limiting boundary in the form of rocks. To make the experience more interactive, we also implemented a Tic-Tac-Toe game to go along with the questions. 

3.2 Personal Quiz

In order to determine the scent that corresponded to a participant’s unique personality,  we created our own version of a personality quiz. Based on the research we conducted on  various personality quizzes (Myers-Briggs, Five Factor Model, Eysenck’s PEN Model), we  determined that a quiz following the general structure and trait association as the FFM  would best suit our purpose. We devised 12 questions, 11 four response multiple choice  and 1 two response question, based around the five main personality traits in the FFM:  Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and  Neuroticism (OCEAN). Since there are four main fragrance families–Floral, Oriental,  Woody, Fresh–and five trait groups, we decided to combine openness and extraversion due to their similarities [4]. To connect fragrance families and the personality traits, we found correlations between one’s personality and preferred perfume. The fragrance-trait relations we used were Floral-Neuroticism, Oriental-Conscientiousness, Woody-Agreeableness, Fresh-Openness and Extraversion [5].

Early versions of our quiz were inaccurate, as a majority of people tended to  overwhelmingly favour one response over the other answer choices for several questions.  This led to a majority of people ending up with a high score in the Fresh fragrance family  as opposed to the other three fragrance families. After going through several iterations of  the quiz while modifying and removing certain biased questions, we were left with 12  questions with even distributions in terms of answer responses. For scoring, we assigned  each response three points (with the exception of #11 which was given four points for  more weight). The points corresponded to different scents, as our research proved that  those who chose a specific answer choice were more likely to favor a specific fragrance.  Each answer choice that an individual made added points to one or more scents. In total,  there were 37 possible points to be earned in each of the four scents, meaning that there  was an equal opportunity to score any of the four fragrance families. After all 12 questions  were answered, the total number of points scored in each fragrance family was summed  up to create the participant’s scent array. The scent array ranked the four scents, in order  to anticipate which one they would be partial to. Next, we had to evaluate whether an  individual’s personality – as judged by our quiz – actually had an effect on the kind of smells  they preferred. To test the accuracy of our personality quiz, we went to various locations  on campus and surveyed people randomly. Participants were first given the quiz in order  for us to predict the scent that they should prefer based on their personality type. Then,  they were given four strips of paper, each sprayed with a different fragrance oil and were  asked to choose which one they prefered. Out of the 24 people we surveyed, 16 of them  chose one of their top two scoring scents as their favourite, proving that our quiz results  could accurately predict which aromas an individual would prefer a majority of the time. 

3.3 OWidgets Scent Machine 

To disperse the participants’ unique perfume throughout the room, we looked into various  methods of scent delivery systems such as essential oil diffusers, heat diffusers, and  nebulizer oil diffusers. While each of these have proved to be effective at dispersing  smells throughout a given environment, the fragrance oils they give off tend to linger in  the room for hours. Over time, the different smells would blend together to form olfactory  white – an unidentifiable scent that would distort our data. We wanted to avoid the  Smell-o-vision disaster of the mid-twentieth century, in which users were overwhelmed  by the multiple scents coming at them. Furthermore, we had to ensure that the smell was  not too strong. Since each VR experience would only last for four to five minutes, we  needed a way to easily get rid of the smell after each encounter. To do this, we partnered  with OWidgets, a company that designs ways to incorporate olfaction into various  experiences. This company was founded by Emanuela Maggioni, an experimental  psychologist whose interest in the human olfactory system led her to develop a machine  that could be used for further experimentation with smells. The scent machine that she  and her team created allows three different scents to be sprayed from the nozzles.  Through experimentation, we confirmed that perfumes sprayed from the machine only  noticeably lingered in the environment for 1-3 seconds after the machine was turned off.  We found that the ideal distance between the user and the OWidgets Scent machine was  five feet. Moreover, we discovered that the best way to spray the fragrances was to have  the machine on a cycle with it on for five seconds and off for 15 seconds for the duration of the experience – about four minutes. This ensured that the participant could smell the scent for a majority of the experience and was not overwhelmed by the strong fragrance. 

4. Future Directions

The next steps for continuing this research would be using more perfumes in the VR  interaction. Expanding from only fresh to also including floral, warm and spicy, and woody  would offer more data about responses to smells which people like and do not like. 

Afterwards, expanding to a more dynamic set of scents would also be a possible future  direction. By implementing scents that correspond to one’s unique environment, an even  more immersive experience would be gained from the users. Smells in an environment  could be identified by an E-nose and then transferred to another user using a similar  system as ours, but the actual replication of the scent and as well the current capabilities  of an E-nose limit this process. Future advancements in these areas would be needed to  further the inclusion of dynamic scents in VR or any other platform.  

5. Acknowledgements

We would like to acknowledge Professor Tsachy Weissman of Stanford’s Electrical  Engineering Department and head of the Stanford Compression Forum for his guidance  and help with the project. We also want to thank Devon Baur for being the mentor of our  group and helping us with designing the project, accessing and getting materials, and  running the experiment. Additionally, we also want to thank Professors Subhashish Mitra,  Gordon Wetzstein, and Debbie Senesky for all of their help with the project. Also, we want  to thank the OWidgets group in London for giving us a scent machine and helping us set it  up and troubleshoot. Lastly, we want to thank the Institute of Art and Olfaction in Los  Angeles for providing us with the scents we used for the project.  

6. References

[1] Vermetten E & Bremner JD. Olfaction as a​ ​traumatic​ reminder in posttraumatic stress disorder: case reports and review. The Journal of Clinical​ ​Psychiatry​ 64 (2003), 202-207.

[2] Camille Ferdenzi, S. Craig Roberts, Annett Schirmer, Sylvain Delplanque, Sezen Cekic, Christelle Porcherot, Isabelle Cayeux, David Sander, Didier Grandjean, Variability of Affective Responses to Odors: Culture, Gender, and Olfactory Knowledge, ​Chemical Senses​, Volume 38, Issue 2, February 2013, Pages 175–186, https://doi.org/10.1093/chemse/bjs083

[3] Bhana, Yusuf. “Localising Smells: How Different Cultures Perceive Scents.” ​TranslateMedia​, 7 Dec. 2017, http://www.translatemedia.com/translation-blog/localising-smells-different-cultures-perceive-scents/

[4] Mensing J., Beck C. (1988) The psychology of fragrance selection. In: Van Toller S., Dodd G.H. (eds) Perfumery. Springer, Dordrecht

[5] Ahrndt, Sebastian & Fähndrich, Johannes & Albayrak, Sahin. (2015). Modelling of Personality in Agents: From Psychology to Implementation.

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