Smelling, touching occupies a central place in the metaverse

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Is the metaverse closer than we think?

It depends on who we ask at CES, where companies showcase innovations that can immerse us deeper into virtual reality, otherwise known as VR.

Metaverse – essentially a buzzword for 3D virtual communities where people can meet, work and play – was a key topic at the four-day tech gathering in Las Vegas, which ends Sunday.

Taiwanese tech giant HTC unveiled a high-end VR headset to compete with market leader Meta, and a slew of other companies and startups touted augmented reality glasses and sensory technologies that can help users feel—and even smell—in a virtual environment.

Among them, Vermont-based OVR Technology unveiled a headset that includes a cartridge with eight basic aromas that can be combined to create different scents. It is due to be released later this year.

An earlier, business-oriented version, mainly used to market fragrances and beauty products, is integrated into VR goggles and allows users to feel everything from a romantic rose bed to marshmallows roasting over a campfire.

The company says it aims to help consumers relax and advertises the product that comes with the app as a sort of Instagram-linked digital spa.

“We are entering an era where augmented reality will drive commerce, entertainment, education, social networking and wellness,” CEO and co-founder Aaron Wisniewski said in a statement. “The quality of these experiences will be measured by how immersive and emotionally engaging they are. The fragrance imbues them with incomparable power.”

But more forceful and immersive uses for fragrance – and its close cousin, flavor – are even further up the innovation spectrum. Experts say even more accessible VR technologies are in the early stages of development and too expensive for many consumers.

The numbers show that interest is declining. According to research firm NPD Group, sales of VR headsets, which have found widespread use in games, fell by 2% last year.

Still, big companies like Microsoft and Meta are investing billions. And many more are joining the race for market share in assistive technology, including wearables that mimic touch.

However, customers are not always impressed with what they find. Ozan Ozaskinli, a technical consultant who traveled more than 29 hours from Istanbul to attend CES, wearing yellow gloves and a black vest to test a so-called haptic product that transmits sensations through buzzing and vibration and stimulates our sense of touch.

Ozaskinli tried to enter the code on the keyboard that allowed him to pull the lever and open the box containing the shiny jewel. But the experience was mostly a disappointment.

“I think it’s far from reality at the moment,” said Ozaskinli. “But if I was considering replacing Zoom meetings, why not? At least you can feel something.

Proponents argue that the widespread adoption of virtual reality will ultimately benefit various segments of society, essentially unlocking the ability to be with anyone, anywhere, anytime. While it’s too early to know what these technologies can do when fully matured, companies that want to give users the most immersive experience are welcoming them with open arms.

Aurora Townsend, chief marketing officer at Flare, a company set to launch a VR dating app called Planet Theta next month, said her team is building their app to include more experiences like touch as the technology becomes more widely available in the consumer market.

“Being able to feel the ground while walking with your partner or hold their hands while doing so… the subtle ways people engage will change as haptic technology fully immerses itself in virtual reality,” said Townsend.

Still, many of these products are unlikely to be widely used in the next few years, even in gaming, said Metaverse expert Matthew Ball. Instead, he said adoption pioneers will likely be fields that have higher budgets and more precise needs, such as bomb units that use haptics and virtual reality to help them with their jobs, and others in the medical field.

In 2021, neurosurgeons at Johns Hopkins said they used augmented reality to perform spinal fusion surgery and remove a cancerous tumor from a patient’s spine.

And the optical technology of Lumus, an Israeli company that makes AR glasses, is already being used by underwater welders, fighter pilots and surgeons who want to monitor a patient’s vital signs or MRI scans during a procedure without having to look at multiple screens. David Goldman, the company’s vice president of marketing.

Meanwhile, Xander, a Boston-based start-up that makes smart glasses that display real-time chat captions for people with hearing loss, will launch a pilot program with the U.S. Veteran’s Administration next month to test some of its technologies, Alex Westner said. co-founder and CEO of the company. He said the agency would allow veterans who have appointments for hearing loss or other sound issues to try out the glasses at some of their clinics. And if it goes well, the agency is likely to become a client, Westner said.

Elsewhere, big companies from Walmart to Nike are launching various virtual reality initiatives. But it’s not clear how much they stand to gain from the early stages of the technology. Consulting firm McKinsey says the metaverse could generate up to $5 trillion by 2030. But outside of gaming, much of today’s VR experience remains something of a marginal pastime, said Michael Kleeman, a technical strategist and visiting scientist at the University of California, San Diego.

“When people promote it, they have to ask themselves – where is the value in that? where’s the profit? Not what’s funny, what’s cute, or what’s interesting.”

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