20 May 2020 | Emily Friedman
What is Olfactory VR? Interview with OVR's Aaron Wisniewski
AWE USA 2020

He's been described as the "Indiana Jones of scent." Self-described mad scientist, artist and olfactory evangelist Aaron Wisniewski is the CEO of OVR Technology. Read our interview below to learn more about Aaron, the significance and potential of smell in virtual reality, and OVR's soon-to-be-launched, first-of-its-kind product. Aaron will also be speaking during AWE Online May 26-29. Get a ticket at www.awexr.com  

AWE (Q): To begin, could you provide us with a little background on yourself and your career? I hear you were a chef...

Aaron (A): I was a chef at one point. I was also a mixologist, a sommelier, and I owned (and still own) a boutique flavor and fragrance company specializing in olfactory science, which I started in 2014. So, I'm kind of an unlikely candidate for the position I'm in now as the CEO of a virtual reality company. My background is not in tech; I've actually spent most of my professional life obsessed in one way or another with the art and science of olfaction--smell. That's cooking, wine, perfume, flavor and fragrance, and that journey has taken me all around the world to some incredible places, really trying to diversify and deepen my understanding of how the mysterious sense of smell influences who we are and how we live

A few years ago, when I tried VR for the first time, it instantly shifted my perspective of what the future looks like and I immediately saw my role in it with my particular experience and skill-set.

Q: Why does scent matter in VR? What is the larger role of the senses in virtual reality?

A: I think everyone can agree about the potential of virtual reality, that VR can change the way that we think, learn, play, heal...For example, inexpensive, safe, versatile and universal access to healthcare, education, training, social connection and entertainment, but how to do we get there is the question everyone wants to answer.

I think, ultimately, the success of VR hinges on its ability to give us a strong, believable feeling of presence, the feeling of really being there. To me, the virtual world has to feel as real as possible to get the most out of it and our sense of smell is the key to unlocking that potential--the unique way that our sense of smell has been scientifically proven to influence our memory, emotion, cognition and behavior will be the driving force that turns VR from a toy into a tool and takes VR users from spectators to participants. I think about it as the difference between watching a forest on TV and being in an actual forest: VR right now is somewhere in the middle of that spectrum and by introducing scent and its powerful relationship to memory, emotion and behavior, it pushes VR much further down that spectrum towards actually being in that forest. No matter your particular use case or application for VR, the more real it feels the more effective it will be.

Thinking about all of our other senses, from a neuro-physical standpoint at least, all our memories and experiences begin as sensory inputs--sounds, sights, touch and, of course, smell. They're then processed and organized by the brain to produce things like actions, emotions, memories and connections and to me these are the things that truly define the human experience. By limiting our sensory inputs, you're limiting the brain and body to a kind of narrow range of superficial experienes; expanding those sensory inputs through immersive tech - like the one OVR Technology has developed - the virtual world then becomes as rich, meaningful and authentic as the world we're in right now, but with the very important exception that literally anything is possible in the virtual world and everything is on demand. 

Q: What does OVR Technology do? What's the company's origin story? How/why was it founded?

A: To put it broadly we use the power of olfaction to enhance the feeling of presence in VR, so whatever the application is - it could be going to a therapy appointment, increasing wellness, learning a new skill for your job, going to school or meeting with friends - presence makes it more effective. There are five of us co-founders all with vastly different backgrounds and skillsets, and we all had the same 'aha moment' independently of each other but more or less at the same time. 

My first experience with VR was with a couple of my co-founders and it really blew our minds. At that moment, seeing the future and the potential, we almost casually mentioned that scent was the only thing missing. Over the next few weeks, that idea really worked its way into my head. I got a phone call from another co-founder, who said he'd been thinking a lot about the power of scent in VR and asked if that was something I had ever thought about, and I laughed and said, "all the time." So, I called up the rest of the team and we got together around a white board and that's when this tidal wave of momentum hit us. We saw the need for olfaction and knew that this group of people was uniquely qualified to solve the problem. We didn't start with a product at all; we just rallied around this vision and built the company and technology around it to get there. Now, more than 2.5 years later, we've got this really cool, determined pack of engineers, scientists, artists, designers, technologists, olfactory specialists and seasoned entrepreneurs, and we're going to market in a big way with a one-of-its-kind technology solution. 

Q: I recently wrote about haptics and sound in VR and the idea of spatial sound. How does that work with scent?

A: That's a really interesting question and one we get a lot. First of all, the way we use scent to navigate the world around us is fundamentally different than the way we use sound. Positional audio is an incredible advancement in increasing the feeling of presence in VR. Scent doesn't have an analogue, so if a scent is to your left versus your right, well, humans aren't actually very good at tracking smells the way other animals are. 

Instead of this soup of millions of aroma molecules bombarding you at every angle, we're able to reimagine it as a geometry. Rather than thinking of scents coming at you, you interact with different geometries as you navigate the virtual world and those geometries trigger sensory moments. Though it mimics the way you might turn your head to the left and experience a different scent than you would turning right, it's not analogous to positional audio where sound influences the direction you will go. 

Q: What is OVR Technology's primary mission? Who stands to benefit most from olfactory VR?

A: The ultimate goal is to produce real-world benefits from time spent in the virtual world. That's our why. Our tool is driving presence through the art and science of olfaction. We look at VR not as a piece of tech you hold in your hand, but as a completely different world that exists alongside our own. That virtual world is in the early stages of construction but in a few years it's where we're going to go for a lot of our healthcare, education and training. It's where we'll learn job skills to expand our economic opportunities and, of course, play and interact with each other; but, like anything, what people get out of it is a direct result of how it's constructed. We understand how critical scent is in our daily lives now, influencing our mood, nutrition, purchasing behaviors and even our choice of romantic partners. Even though it's underestimated, we see how critical scent will be in the virtual world if we want to get those real-world benefits. 

We're a scent technology company, of course, and I want to see every HMD and virtual experience standard with our OXE (olfactory experience), as ubiquitous as audio; but scent is just a tool in unlocking that VR for good potential. I firmly believe that better VR makes a better reality, so I think everyone can stand to benefit from OVR Technology, but a better way to answer your question is that we look to partner with organizations looking for better outcomes, specifically in health and wellness, training and education, and empathy-related experiences. For example, in the case of Dr. Albert "Skip" Rizzo at USC, veterans are the ones who benefit. Skip has developed a program to treat PTSD in veterans and first responders and smell is a critical component to the impact of that treatment. We're also working with Dr. Jeremy Bailenson on a project for the Tribeca Film Festival. Jeremy runs the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University and his work focuses on presence and how VR experiences affect empathetic behavior in the real world, which is the foundation for how time in the virtual world can make us better as humans. He is a firm believer in the additional value olfaction brings to drive those human behaviors. 

Q: What about industrial training; is there a place for scent to make that more impactful in VR?

A: Absolutely. Like I keep saying, the more real it is, the more effective it's going to be, but there's a lot of science behind that. As you acquire knowledge and skills, sensory inputs are very important in order to achieve experiential learning. The more of your senses you engage, the more likely you are to retain that information contextually. And scent memory lasts exponentially longer than visual or auditory memory, so scent will drive better outcomes in enterprise training. We're working with military and first responders as a good portion of our early customers. Although it's not exactly enterprise training, there are a lot of safety and training skills that are too expensive, dangerous or unlikely to simulate in real life and so VR is where they're able to do that. The learning curve is going to jump quite a bit, I believe, by engaging these other senses. 

Q: Without giving too much away, can you tell us about what you're launching at AWE?

A: Yes, we're launching the ION device, our first-of-its-kind technology driven by our Architecture of Scentᴿ platform. The Architecture of Scent is a combination of hardware, software and scentware that work together intelligently to understand your behavior in the virtual environment and trigger the appropriate sensory impression at precisely the right moment. It sounds relatively simple, but it's actually really difficult to recreate the complexity of the sensory tapestry around us that we sample every time we breathe. The hardware itself is a really unique microtechnology that's able to disperse scent almost identically to the way nature does in very small amounts, and it can shift between scent being there and not being there in milliseconds. 

One of the many problems in the past in trying to pair scent with VR is that as they are released scents can build up over tiime and create a kind of brown, latent or mixed smell and we solved that problem through this microtechnology. The software is a revisualization of that chaotic sensory soup all around us into a set of geometries with predictable behavior that can be applied to any virtual content. And then, finally, scentware, which is the actual scent liquid we've developed. It's not a perfume or air freshener; it's something completely new we developed through analytical chemistry and sensory expertise to capture, catalogue and recreate all the scents of the world one-by-one. 

Q: I recently realized that the smell of peonies reminds me of the Barbie store in our local mall from my childhood. There were these two pillars as you walked in filled with floating Barbie shoes, and for some reason that's a smell I'll pick up once in a while and think "Oh, Barbie store."

A: I love hearing people's scent memories because they really define us. They can get triggered and so something like the Barbie store...consumer products have known about the power of scent for decades; it really drives consumer behavior and brand loyalty. 95% of your purchasing behavior is made in your unconscious mind, the same area of the brain where scent is processed. It's time that we liberate our sense of smell from just consumer products to VR for good

Q: Who does OVR Technology work with? Are you primarily looking to partner with hardware companies or do you have clients like the military or both?

A: We align with commercial, federal and academic organizations; hopefully, those who share our vision of the power of VR. We're B2B (we're not available to consumers at this point) and as opposed to just a product company we're more of a solutions managed service company, So, when working with a partner, we don't just sell them a bunch of units; we identify the problem, what they want to train on, what they want users to learn, and then we might partner with a hardware or content developer to increase productivity or whatever the need might be. We're one piece of the solution puzzle. 

Q: Have companies called on your services to adapt during the pandemic?

A: Yeah, Covid-19 has really forced a new reality into existence. It's affected us physically, mentally. It's affected the healthcare and education systems, social structure and the economy; and I think about places like New York where people may feel kind of trapped, and what I wouldn't give to be able to just snap my fingers and be in a peaceful forest even for a few minutes to get out of the apartment. Although we're not ready to meet that need, it's something we're often asked: How can olfactory VR mitigate the stress and anxiety almost everyone is feeling right now? This change was already happening but Covid-19 has just accelerated it, where people leaving their homes to consume the world is kind of reversing. I think people are going to increasingly consume entertainment, social interaction, healthcare and education from their homes and so VR is no longer just a nice-to-have; it's a requirement and building the virtual world with intent is more important than ever.

When the pandemic first hit and we were transitioning to remote work, we paused our forward momentum to partner with a few other companies in our community and the local medical center to design and 3D print pieces for respirators that were in short supply. Our Head of Design Erik Cooper was also involved in an open-source project for PPE, so we were able to help essential workers. 

Q: What's next for OVR? What's on the horizon?

A: The launch is very big for us. This is the moment we're kind of coming out to the world, so we've put a lot of emotional energy behind it. Ultimately, this is really a stepping stone for us because the way we see scent incorporated into people's lives through VR is part of our vision for the world. We want to see the relationship between scent and the virtual world become as ubiquitous as audio and the television. We are constantly in R&D mode, constantly innovating, so I'm not going to tease any specifics about what's in the pipeline but it's something we value in a big way. I would say look out for us this time next year!

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