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Inside San Francisco’s Museum of Craft and Design, a long hallway painted eggshell blue is lined with the most extraordinary devices. A glass globe that uses trained bees to detect the presence of disease in a person’s exhalations. An Alexa-esque diffuser that emits fragrances at timed intervals to encourage people with dementia to eat. A USB-powered silver necklace that gives off a scent—fragrances include “fascinate,” “annihilate,” and “carouse”—when its wearer’s heart rate tops 110 beats per minute. All the items are here as part of Living With Scents, the museum’s first olfactory exhibit.
But it’s a far more unassuming item—a pair of VR glasses—that catches my eye, and my nose.
Resting next to the headset is the secret sauce of this experience; a white, Bluetooth-enabled snap-on cartridge, aka the ION, the flagship product of Vermont-based OVR Technology (short for olfactory virtual reality technology).
“It’s critical that scent be [part of] metaverse development . . . or we’re completely limiting the potential,” OVR’s CEO, Aaron Wisniewski, tells me later over Zoom. “Smell has this profound effect over who we are, how we feel, what we do, what we buy, who we love.”
OVR’s snap-n-scent cartridge comes preloaded with nine chemical compounds, which combine to make hundreds of scents, released via digitally programmed cues. Creating smells is a complex, convoluted process; while “strawberry” or “chocolate” scents are straightforward, to create “beach” requires a combination of sand, sea breeze, and SPF.
“Unfortunately, there’s no RGB of scent,” Wisniewski says. A software plugin makes the ION compatible with Unity and Unreal content. He hopes to release a consumer version in 2023.
Sadly, OVR’s exhibit does not include a hands-on demo, due to COVID-19. “We’d like to dive deeper with our audience,” says Sarah Beth Rosales, the museum’s communications director. “People don’t [always] think of the more abstract ways in how objects hold scents. Being able to showcase [scent] is really important.”
Smell, after all, is more than just a fragrant add-on to life; our olfactory neurons create unconscious, physiological responses. Japanese plum blossoms, for example, were found to activate the sympathetic nervous system, improving mood and energy. To truly build an immersive metaverse, it is vital to include scent; in absentia, things feel off-kilter.
The convergence of tech and scent is not a new thing—the short-lived Smell-O-Vision debuted in 1960!—but the lack of broader adoption was more about outlook than offerings. For years, many considered smell the least important of the senses. A 2018 study of millennial Brits found 64% would rather sacrifice their sense of smell than their smartphone.
But during the pandemic, due to the virus’s sometimes debilitating effect on our sense of smell, this shifted. In smell absentia, people gained a new appreciation for what their 400-plus smell receptors brought to their lived experience: the memories scent evokes, its psychological impact, and the exceptionally strong interplay between smell and taste.
This deeper understanding of scent paralleled the wider paradigm of integrating multisensory technology into everyday use: In 2021 Amazon patented an odor-recognition application for its Ring doorbells, and in 2019, Google’s Brain Team announced it had successfully designed a neural network to accurately assess smells at a molecular level.
Today, as metaverse engineers, designers, and architects map out the look of digital future experiences, for some, smell has become a key part of the puzzle. Whoever defines the smell-o-verse first will lead this nascent category, meaning the smell-off is ON.
OVR Technology is already being utilized in therapeutic settings. Ascendant New York, a $3,500-a-day substance disorder clinic, offers patients guided meditations via Inhale Wellness, OVR’s mindfulness platform released in November 2021, which beams users into a nature setting and emits 0.1-millisecond bursts of scent in relation to their VR interactions.
In Los Angeles, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder experience OVR’s scents through VR exposure therapy treatment inside labs at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Those smells are especially challenging to replicate; to re-create gun smoke, for example, you need to mimic the sulfur dioxide, a toxic gas that’s illegal to manufacture.
“We have to figure out a work-around using molecules that are analogous but safe to use,” Wisniewski says. “Smell is this chaotic soup of molecules.”
OVR’s one of many players in the digital scent space. Perhaps the most interesting smell-o-verse hardware is being cooked up in Jas Brooks’s Chicago lab. The PhD student’s Bluetooth device sits over the septum and sends tiny electrical pulses that stimulate the trigeminal nerve (the cranial nerve that delivers facial sensations) to create directional information about an odor for the wearer (it won a Fast Company award for experimental design).
In the U.K. there’s OW Smell Digital, which raised $1.2 million to develop an AI-driven cloud-based “Photoshop for smell” service. In Spain, Olorama Technology has developed a 400-scent library (fragrances include “pastry shop,” “mojito,” and “wet ground”) delivered via scent-releasing boxes, many of which can be voice-activated by the user. Also available: a COVID-testing smell kit. Olorama’s luxe product, a 40-smell unit, starts at $13,408. On the wackier end of the spectrum is an NFT fragrance from Berlin-based Look Labs, captured via a near-infrared spectroscopy recording of a scent’s molecular wavelength.
But behind every fledgling company lies the graveyard of startups past. Feelreal’s crowdfunded multisensory VR mask demoed to acclaim in 2015 but went dark in 2020 (in part due to flavored vaping laws), leaving behind a raft of unhappy investors. Tokyo-based Vaqso, which raised $600,000 in 2017 for its clip-on cartridge-and-fan combo, hasn’t updated its website in years.
“It’s interesting technology but not an interesting business model . . . yet,” says Christina Ku, a venture capitalist at Docomo Ventures, whose parent company, NTT Docomo, has incorporated digital smell into Cokoon, its custom-built metaverse-in-real-life meeting room. For Ku, the lack of major investments “denotes the very early stage of smell.” But commercial brands are intrigued, she adds, highlighting Nissan’s investment in its “new car smell” and hiring of certified smellers. “That’s the next element,” she says.
However, Yash Patel, a general partner at Telstra Ventures who invests in Web3 startups, sees integrated scent as a distraction from the bigger picture. “The metaverse will not be driven by the hardware,” he says; in his timeline, interoperability comes first, better devices come next, and only then will there be space to develop immersive add-ons.
Another player in the digi-scent space is Arkansas-based Hypnos Virtual. Its approach is twofold: On the hardware side, the company has a connected nebulizer, preloaded with scents collected through a cold-diffusion process to maintain the purity of the ingredients. Its software blends them together, based on data inputs, and releases them at select times, chosen via its in-house “scent poets” or through its artificial intelligence. A drag-and-drop scent editor is also in the works, says CEO Michael Kaczkowski. Think how much richer those vacation slideshows will be if you can include sensory details.
Then, a hitch. In 2020, Kaczkowski, who also manages a prosthetics company that re-creates lifelike skin, eyes, and limbs, came down with COVID-19. It felt like someone had dropped a boulder on him; he felt lethargic, and his sense of smell vanished. “It was horrifying,” he says. “I’ve spent years and millions of dollars on this, and now I can’t smell.”
He took some small comfort in knowing that the human body, even without smell, would still physiologically (though not psychologically) respond to scent inputs, meaning the medical side of Hypnos was still in play, especially its cannabinoid cartridges that deliver smoke-free THC and CBD. (Meanwhile, Kaczkowski says he has now recovered 80% of his smell). Trialed by anesthesiologists, this is the area that’s sparked the most interest from investors, he says.
The THC side of things also raises some interesting opportunities for Hypnos Virtual’s cinema model (“Imagine modulating your high during a movie,” Kaczkowski says). On the consumer side, he’s working with high-end home theater designers for a slow rollout, priced around $25,000. “The price will drop over time,” he adds.
There’s no question that smell evokes certain chemical and emotional responses in humans. Many professional bowlers use scented balls because of the positive associations they evoke. But while we all inhale the same chemical compounds, our responses are unique to our own histories, memories, and social makeup. As the metaverse expands, the only way for it to truly mirror reality is to include scent from the start. People may notice its absence more than its inclusion, but for really lifelike immersion, these pain points must be removed.
Before exiting the Living With Scents exhibit, I stopped at the interactive perfumery table, hosted by the Ministry of Scent perfumery. I smell-tested around 30 vials, categorized into top, middle and base notes, and circled my favorites on a sampler sheet. Its second station held brown bottles with droppers, and I whipped up my own scent, based on my top-ranked notes: a dash of tea rose, chocolate, and aquatic. I took a deep sniff, and coughed: It had a wet, cloying smell, like detergent, and wet dogs, and stale biscuits.
It was a good reminder that as much as scent is everywhere, it’s also an art form. The majority of the metaverse will be developed by software engineers, who, while skilled at their work, lack the nuanced knowledge of scent. Acknowledging this, many have brought in outside experts, such as fashion designers for Metaverse Fashion Week, and consult and contract with big-time architects on city creation. With this in mind, perhaps the job of “scent choreographer” will soon be part of the metaverse hiring boom.
Authentic Artists says the funding round will help accelerate the development of its AI-driven metaverse music platform. The web3 company is also looking to build its WarpSound music brand and onboarding market-making partners like Warner Music and Crush Ventures.
“We love revolutionary brands, and WarpSound is one of them,” says RTFKT Co-Founder Steven Vasilev. “My Co-Founders and I are excited to join the Authentic Artists team on their journey as they create the sound of the metaverse and ignite new music culture.”
“WMG is focused on harnessing the tools, technologies, and protocols that collectively make up web3 to consistently unlock new opportunities for our artists, songwriters, and fans to create and consume together,” adds Warner Music Group’s Chief Digital Officer, Oana Ruxandra. “This partnership sees us leaning in with the ambitious team at Authentic Artists as they build out unique communities at the intersection of music and technology.”
WarpSound features music ambassadors like virtual artists Nayomi, DJ Dragoon, Gnar Heart, and GLiTCH. The WVRPS by WarpSound is the #1 music NFT collection on OpenSea and offers 9,999 unique, visual trait-driven musical voices enabled by Authentic’s generative music technology.
“Music is Authentic’s lifeblood, and we’re using new creative tools to awaken a deeper connection with music and each other,” says Authentic Artists CEO Chris McGarry. “We’re grateful to have the support of some of the most transformative brands and leaders in music and digital culture as we build the defining metaverse music platform.”
Meta Chief Mark Zuckerberg revealed in an interview this week that he hopes “around a billion people” will soon be active in the metaverse.
Despite the pandemic spurring an enthusiastic uptake of video conferencing services such as Zoom, and other technologies that create virtual spaces, not everyone is as enthused by metaverse developments.
Meta will continue to innovate in this area, however, and if the rise of Facebook and social media is anything to go by, it might not be long before we’re spending as much time in digital spaces as we are in physical ones.
Speaking to CNBC on Tuesday, Zuckerberg – who is currently the 15th richest person in the world – said that, in the second half of this decade, the metaverse could be a “considerable” part of the company’s business.
“We hope to basically get to around a billion people in the metaverse doing hundreds of dollars of commerce, each buying digital goods, digital content, different things to express themselves,” Mark Zuckerberg, Meta CEO
Zuckerberg explained that he wants people to spending on “clothing for their avatar or different digital goods for their virtual home or things to decorate their virtual conference room” or even “utilities to be able to be more productive in virtual and augmented reality, and across the metaverse overall.”
This sort of progression away from the relics of Web 2.0 and social media sites – of which Zuckerberg’s first, Facebook, is in sequential decline for the first time in its history – has been a long time coming.
For instance, Meta (which was then Facebook) paid $2 billion for Oculus VR in 2014 – but it didn’t quite take off as planned.
In 2018, however, Oculus executive Jason Rubin sent a 50-page document to the company board claiming that the metaverse was “ours to lose” in the next 10 years. Since then, serious time and money have been plowed into to making the idea come to life.
Other companies are taking it seriously too – Microsoft, Epic Games, Meta, and 33 other companies have formed a group for the metaverse, which will consist of “action-based projects” that support common standards.
The debate over whether there truly will be anything near to one billion people in the metaverse in the near future evokes fierce disagreement – and there’s evidence either way.
On the one hand, phenomena like the purchase of virtual land – by both real estate investors, celebrities, and ordinary people – illustrates that digital spaces can be valued in ways that someone a decade ago would never have been able to predict.
Plus, we many people do already spend a lot of time in interactive ‘digital spaces’. We play video games, we surf social media and we video call each other. They aren’t quite as immersive as the metaverse, but would it really be that big of a leap?
Others aren’t so convinced by the hype. “I don’t know if I necessarily buy into this Metaverse stuff, although people talk to me a lot about it” Elon Musk quipped last year, adding that he does not see a future where people want to stay put in the virtual realm.
Recent studies of people working in VR environments have seen test subjects drop out due to nausea and anxiety. Physical side effects such as dry eyes, dizziness, tiredness, stiff necks, facial swelling, and skin issues were also recorded in participants, but this was largely put down to the bulky equipment, which still remains an obstacle to widespread participation.
Video conferencing apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, however, have started to incorporate metaverse-like features into their services with more immersive rooms. Microsoft Mesh for Teams for example, allows you to “Connect and collaborate with a feeling of presence through personalized avatars and immersive spaces”, as Microsoft describes it.
Will there be a day when everyone receives a VR headset in the mail, and suddenly, our whole society goes digital? It’s unlikely. Will we start to see more and more applications, software, games, and general life experiences that have “immersive” elements, taking us, for a time, inside the “metaverse”? It certainly looks that way. And if that’s the case now, who knows where we’ll be by 2030.
The marketing news cycle this year has been inundated with announcements from brands around their plans for the metaverse, the nascent idea of a channel that can blend real and virtual worlds seamlessly together. Activations have spanned packaged goods, quick-service restaurants, retail and fashion verticals and made platforms like Decentraland, The Sandbox, Meta’s Horizon Worlds, Fortnite and Roblox into household names (for marketers, at least).
Despite the flurry of activity, many brands have struggled to differentiate their metaverse activations, some of which seem like slapdash efforts thrown together to avoid missing the bandwagon. Still, well-executed plays represent an opportunity for brands to experiment with how they will be able to meet consumer needs in the future, whether it be through ties to real-world rewards, hybrid events or diversity and inclusion initiatives. Nearly six in 10 (59%) consumers are excited about transitioning everyday activities, like shopping and attending events, to the metaverse, with a similar number of metaverse-aware companies (57%) already adopting the concept, according to a new report by McKinsey & Company.
The metaverse is expected to be worth $5 trillion by 2030, per the McKinsey report — despite the fact that it doesn’t really exist yet. That expansion will support growth in e-commerce ($2.6 trillion), advertising ($206 billion) and gaming ($125 billion).
“The metaverse is about creating worlds and experiences that you want to go to, that you’re drawn to,” said Ginny Ziegler, Accenture’s chief marketing officer in North America. “It’s not going to be about better headsets, more realistic visual renderings, faster network speeds, more intelligent engines or the next TikTok or Fortnite… What’s really going to make the metaverse real is the adoption of the experiences that it enables and the propositions that it brings to life.”
Even in this nascent stage, the development of metaverse brand activities are shadowed by the market corrections and crashes impacting related areas including cryptocurrency and nonfungible tokens. As with any experimental marketing spend, metaverse activations will face questions over their degree of risk, budget allocation and outcomes. But that doesn’t mean that crashes elsewhere should impede experiments in the metaverse.
“If you’re aligned to the opportunity cost of what you’re going to put into the world, and if you’re actually creating opportunity for the community that you’re there to support, it’s probably a good bet,” said Hall Carlough, vice president and head of creative strategy at Web3 marketing agency Invisible North.
Below, Marketing Dive has gathered some of the most significant brand activations in the metaverse that point to how the space could evolve and meet industry expectations going forward.
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