Virtual Reality and Scent


The age of scent and entertainment is now, with Virtual Reality (VR) leading the way.  With a rash of startups and even producers looking at how to stimulate our sense of smell in their productions, The Scent Narrative of Entertainment has launched.  In this summer’s Tribeca Film Festival, for instance, 3 film makers incorporated scent into their VR films. Some incorporated it into a VR device and some into the room in which it was shown.  All reported that viewers had a more “realistic” experience with the addition of scent.

Scent Changed the VR Experience at Tribeca.

The three VR films that integrated scent (linked to the Festival site) were: Milica Zec and Winslow Porter’s Tree, Kathryn Bigelow and Imraan Ismail’s The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes, and Marshmallow Laser Feast’s TREEHUGGER: WAWONA.  According to those who went through these experiences, the filmmakers created an illusion of the actual places filmed, including scenery to get the audience in the mood, then deployed scents throughout to give a new level of immersion.  All three films have received global attention and scent has become more in the mainstream of VR.

Even the World of Disney has a Scent.

Disney pioneered the inclusion of scent in entertainment with their “Soarin Over California”, in 2001. It took guests on a flight over California landmarks while the seats move in synchronization with the scenes. Scents matched the scenery, too, such as the smell of oranges while flying above an orange grove, grass over a golf course, etc.  Last year they rebooted it as “Soarin’ Around the World”, featuring aerial images of places such as Sydney Australia and the Great Wall of China. Scents associated with these places fill the room to give viewers another sense of the place.

Virtual Reality Is Over 30 Years Old.

Considered a new industry, Virtual Reality is decades old.  VR was pioneered by  Jaron Lanier who left Atari in the 1980’s to found VPL, Visual Programming Languages, the first Virtual Reality company.   The company that Lanier and his partners created was the start, over 30 years ago, to an industry that is just beginning to come of age.  After Billions of dollars in investment, the VR solutions in hardware are giving rise to artists and creators worldwide.  Virtual reality is on the brink of something great, whether in entertainment or as we profiled in previous “Scent Narratives” as an aid for therapy. The Tribeca film festival was just one example of how VR evolution is embracing our powerful sense of smell to enroll people in the technology.

Entertainment as Therapy.

An interesting cross-over is the possibility of using Scent with VR as more than just an amusement.  While Disney offers a virtual “rollercoaster of the world” greater applications open the possibility of entertainment as therapy.  We have reviewed the possibilities of using scent and VR as a treatment for anxiety disorders like PTSD.  The medical profession calls this “Exposure Therapy” (or EXP for short).  Treatments can be made by working with a combination of scent and images in VR.  The surprising fact is that EXP has been shown to be effective in the treatment of anxiety and trauma-related disorders. [i] This opens the door to new forms of scent based content.

Escape from Reality has a New Purpose.

Escape from reality is the reality of most entertainment and has been for generations.  Imagine for a moment that instead of a media experience giving you an “escape” or adrenalin rush, it instead calmed you down, made you feel better.  This is the promise of combining the research in EXP with scent and VR entertainment. The research into EXP is focused on “fear extinction” models used in animals[ii]and can be used both in therapy and entertainment.  We all learned in High School of the principles of classical conditioning discovered by Pavlov,[iii] where the association of a bell ringing made dogs hungry.

VR with scent offers a newfound and personal way to experience a positive alternate reality.  Combined with the use of behavioral conditioning as a base line, entertainment can “satisfy” the desires of people by offering a scent and visual combo. THere are many positive outcomes.   an example, the re-conditioning of people negatively affected by PTSD situations, as mentioned in earlier Scent Narratives, to a healthier stability without drugs.  EXP has been included in several versions of cognitive behavioral therapy and has proven to be effective, including those who have been in motor vehicular accidents[iv] and victims of sexual assault[v].

Dr. Rachel Hertz Believes that Scent is the Emotional Cue to Memory.

Dr. Rachel Hertz has found in her studies that scent is an emotional cue to memory.   To test the claim that odors are the ‘best’ cues to memory, she and her team compared odors with verbal, visual, tactile and musical stimuli. In every experiment, the odor-evoked memories were always more emotional. The data indicate that emotional prominence is responsible for the impression that odors are superior reminders and that the retrieval processes are responsible for the distinctive emotionality of odor-evoked memories[vi].EXP is a highly researched and effective treatment for anxiety disorders[vii] and can be the key to future content experiences. Therefore, Scent media has far reaching opportunities that exceed our current grasp.

Not Clockwork Orange.

VR and Scent can offer an audience the opportunity to “rethink” their own emotional connections. Used in a voluntary state where the audience wants to achieve a different reaction to a conditioned response not in an involuntary reaction, like Stanley Kubrick’s infamous “A Clockwork Orange”.  For example, the fear of dogs, Cynophobia. A behavior shift in a child who developed an extreme fear response to dogs, after being chased or bitten, could be offered a positive “scented” example.  Watching a VR movie of puppies, smelling the scent and seeing happiness around the dog could change that child’s program of fear.  Virtual Reality with Scent combined with Exposure therapy could help extinguish learned behaviors. The future ofScent Enhanced VREXP is exciting.  Only time will tell.


[i] Butler AC, Chapman JE, Forman EM, Beck AT. The empirical status of cognitive-behavioral therapy: a review of meta-analyses. Clin Psychol Rev. 2006;26(1):17–31. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2005.07.003 . [PubMed]
[ii] Myers KM, Davis M. Mechanisms of fear extinction. Molecular Psychiatry. 2007;12(2):120–50. doi: 10.1038/ . [PubMed]
[iii] Pavlov I. The work of the digestive glands. London, UK: Charles Griffin and Co.; 1902.
[iv] Blanchard EB, Hickling EJ, Devineni T, Veazey CH, Galovski TE, Mundy E, et al. A controlled evaluation of cognitive behaviorial therapy for posttraumatic stress in motor vehicle accident survivors. Behaviour Research and Therapy. 2003;41(1):79–96. doi: 10.1016/s0005-7967(01)00131-0 . [PubMed]
[v] Resick PA, Williams LF, Suvak MK, Monson CM, Gradus JL. Long-term outcomes of cognitive–behavioral treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder among female rape survivors. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 2012;80(2):201–10. doi: 10.1037/a0026602 [PMC free article] [PubMed]
[vi] RACHEL S. HERZ Are Odors the Best Cues to Memory? A Cross-Modal Comparison of Associative Memory Stimuli 7 FEB 2006
[vii] Powers MB, Halpern JM, Ferenschak MP, Gillihan SJ, Foa EB. A meta-analytic review of prolonged exposure for posttraumatic stress disorder. Clinical Psychology Review. 2010;30(6):635–41. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2010.04.007 . [PubMed]


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