In October, I had the opportunity to try out the Rez Synesthesia Suit: A Velcro-on body rig concept that uses countless pulsing motors to add the sense of touch to virtual reality experiences. The experience was rough, but somewhat amazing: As I waved my hand through HTC Vive-rendered bubbles, I could "feel" their presence.
If that sort of experience sounds unsettling to you, I have some bad news: We're going to be seeing a lot of these things in the next year or so. The promise of virtual realty is that it renders a convincing and transportive world. You know: A reality that is virtual. Of course, while the typical VR rig only deals with the senses of sight and sound, our bodies and brains engage with the world around us with a full suite of senses. By mapping other sensory experiences to VR experiences, developers could make things far more realistic and increase the devices' powers of teleportation. This is great for entertainment and gaming, but also important for therapeutic purposes; where VR's ability to trick the nervous system into feeling lite it is somewhere it is not could make it an incredibly useful medium for treating a wide range of physiological and psychiatric conditions.
ngs far more realistic and increase the devices' powers of teleportation. This is great for entertainment and gaming, but also important for therapeutic purposes; where VR's ability to trick the nervous system into feeling lite it is somewhere it is not could make it an incredibly useful medium for treating a wide range of physiological and psychiatric conditions.
Of course, this leap won't be an easy one. First off, tech companies have a dubious history of adding other senses to existing technologies. If you don't remember the Digiscents iSmell Personal Scent Synthesizer, you are far from alone. Widely regarded as one of the biggest flops in gadget history (and and a mainstay of "Worst Ever" lists), the 2001 computer peripheral promised to emit a wide range of specific smells while users surfed the Web. As Wikipedia describes it: "The device contained a cartridge with 128 'primary odors' which could be mixed to replicate natural and man-made odors. DigiScents had indexed thousands of common odors, which could be coded, digitized, and embedded into web pages or email."
Still, somebody thought it was a good idea. The company reportedly raised some $20 million to develop the product—which never actually made it to commercial release.
The point being: It is hard to fundamentally change the way consumers experience technology. Programmers need to spend the time and effort to bake in other senses. And whether it's adding the smell of coffee beans to the Starbucks homepage or vibrations to a VR earthquake simulator, that's a lot of extra work to devote to a nascent technology that few people may own.
There's also the "Eww factor". Even if you're the sort of person who loves how fashion magazines are filled with fragrant advertisements and just wish that the Web could replicate that experience, being infiltrated by odors sort of feels invasive. And if smelling the Web sounds unsettling, it's hard to imagine you'll be the first person to sign up to being felt up by a computer.
Still, multisensory VR could be a legitimate game-changer, and is a possibility I'm actually quite excited for. But it's going to be hard for a startup (even a well-funded one) to compile the critical mass of developers and consumers needed to make things work. Which is why our best hope may lie in companies like Sony, who produces its own VR rigs, makes its own games, and has tight relationships with a wide range of developers for the Playstation VR platform. More importantly: There's an obvious application here. First-person shooters have long employed basic haptic feedback (remember the N64 Rumble Pak?), and giving players the ability to "feel" hits and explosions sort of makes sense. And if building this technology for gamers allows it to eventually be used for medical and therapeutic purposes, that's a win-win.