The Health and Wellness Implications of Adding Scent to Virtual Reality - Aaron Wisniewski & Dr. Rachel Herz of OVR Technology


It’s not hard to start feeling relaxed when you experience a virtual reality visit to a mountain top, taking in the beautiful views of forested peaks and valleys and hearing the rustling breeze. You can actually feel transported from the real world. But imagine how much more transporting it would be if you could also smell the pine trees? Well, now you can, thanks to OVR Technology, a Vermont-based company that has overcome substantial technical challenges to seamlessly add scent to the VR and AR experience. “Research has shown quite directly that adding sense of smell to VR tangibly increases presence and immersion and the key factors that everybody is looking for when they experience a VR environment,” says neuroscientist Dr. Rachel Herz, the company’s chief scientific adviser. And because not everyone has positive associations with scents from the real world, says CEO Aaron Wisniewski, OVR is creating new ones to facilitate the therapeutic impact of the scented VR experience. Both stress that the applications for the technology go well beyond recreational use, and the units are already being deployed in clinical settings with one study showing a major -- and lasting -- drop in levels of pain, stress and anxiety among inpatients after doing just a few short sessions with the OVR headset per week. Don’t miss this fascinating conversation with host Michael Carrese as we explore how OVR’s groundbreaking technology is adding a powerful new dimension to the virtual world. Mentioned in this episode: https://ovrtechnology.com/





Michael Carrese: Hi, everybody, I'm Michael Carrese. A few weeks ago, I was standing on a mountaintop in Maine taking in the stunning view, hearing the rustling breeze and enjoying the smell of a patch of lavender at my feet. I actually picked up a lavender flower and brought it to my nose to inhale deeply and enjoy that, and it was honestly one of the nicest experiences I'd had all summer. 


Then I took off the scent-enhanced virtual reality headset I was wearing that made that rich experience possible, and remembered I was actually standing in the offices of OVR Technology in Burlington, Vermont. The company is a leader in olfactory virtual reality and augmented reality and we have two key members of the OVR team with us today to help us understand why adding scent to VR matters, how they do it, and what the applications are for health and wellness among other things. 


CEO Aaron Wisniewski is with us, he's a pioneer in the smell and taste industry with multiple successful companies and product launches. As co-founder of OVR, he's worked to digitize the sense of smell for Metaverse applications, health and wellness, education, social connection and entertainment. We're also joined by Dr. Rachel Herz. She's a neuroscientist and olfaction expert who is OVR’s Chief Scientific Adviser. She's also a TEDx speaker, faculty member at Brown University and Boston College, and published author of both books and numerous research publications and it's great to have both of you. Thanks for coming.


Dr. Rachel Herz: Thank you.


Aaron Wisniewski: Thanks for having us here. Great to be here.


Michael Carrese: I actually had the pleasure of meeting you guys a couple of weeks ago at your offices when I was doing that great experience I just described, so I came to know a little bit about your backgrounds, but our audience is starting from scratch. I’d love to hear about your career journeys and Aaron, perhaps we can start with you.


Aaron Wisniewski: Yeah, absolutely. So, my love or fascination with, obsession with, scent actually started as a passion for food and flavor. I started my career as a chef with some food science background and, as some of us may know, our perception of flavor when we eat and drink is about 90-95% smell. We only have five tastes, but we can smell trillions of different things. So as my interest in smell grew over the years, it led me from being a chef to a sommelier to a mixologist to the flavor and fragrance industry, where I started my first flavor and fragrance company in 2013, Alice and the Magician. As I learned more about scent, I became more and more fascinated about scent's effect over our emotions, our cognition and our behavior and as the world around me became increasingly digital, and also increasingly virtual, I became more fascinated in how smell might be digitized, and how it can benefit us in those digital and virtual environments.  


Michael Carrese: That all makes sense. Dr. Herz, what first got you interested in psychology and then scent, and what was the path that led you to work with these guys?


Dr. Rachel Herz: So, actually, my undergraduate degree was in biology, primarily, as was my master's thesis, but it was while I was doing that research that I realized that I was really interested in humans. I also was trying to really figure out how I could bring together the training that I had in learning theory and emotion, through the track of biology, with my interest in people and sort of realized that one of the best ways to do that, actually, was to study the sense of smell. In particular, to go to a question that had always personally fascinated me, which is whether or not there's a special and privileged connection between our sense of smell and our past personal memories...you know, this sort of Proust experience where you smell something and all of a sudden, you're transported back in time and space. The short answer is, yes. But that's what I ended up doing my Ph.D. thesis on and kind of the rest is history in terms of my personal, academic career and professional career. 


But it was a few years ago, when Aaron and his coworker, Sara, reached out to me as a consultant to work on some projects that they were doing. This was a new company in the digital sphere. I've had some past experience because this isn't the first time anyone's ever thought about digitizing scent, but all the previous iterations have really been flops. Meeting Aaron and listening to and discovering what their technology was all about and seeing that it actually really works was really wonderful. Their approach completely aligns with what I've been studying for my entire career in terms of the psychology and biology of the sense of smell. So, it was a perfect fit between business and science for me to get together with them.


Michael Carrese: Well, that's great, and we'll get into the technology in a minute but first, Rachel, can you explain to us why scent is so central to the human experience? Aaron mentioned emotions, cognition, behavior...it connects to so much of who we are. Help us understand that.


Dr. Rachel Herz: So, the sense of smell, neuroanatomically, is uniquely connected to the part of the brain that processes emotion and memory. In fact, the primary olfactory cortex is the conjoined structures of the amygdala and the hippocampus, which is where emotion and emotional memory and various other forms of associative learning takes place in the brain. No other sensory system has this direct and unique connection to that part of the brain and actually has a dual task. 


This same part of the brain is doing several things: it's both smelling, it's learning it's experiencing, and it's creating memories. This is something that's really unique about the sense of smell because it is so fundamentally involved in how we think, how we feel and how we act. So, bringing the sense of smell into environments like VR and AR has a really special effect because it is more connected to how we have these very visceral responses to the world around us than any of our other senses. In fact, there have been research studies which have tangibly shown quite directly that adding experiences that are scented to VR tangibly increases presence and immersion and the key factors that everybody is looking for when they experience a VR environment.


Michael Carrese: Yeah, and I have to say that perfectly describes the experience that I had Moving into the tech of this, Aaron, I'm just so curious how you're able to produce subtle changes. You know, as I brought that lavender flower that I described to my nose, the scent became much more intense. There's another scenario that Jessie -- who I should thank, by the way, for doing a great job demonstrating all this for me and helping me out – showed me where there was a rose that I picked out of a bed of dirt. You can smell the dirt end of it, and then immediately switch to the flower end of it, and you can smell the rose. So how are you able to make that sense of place in this virtual reality connect to the intensity of the smell?


Aaron Wisniewski: So, there are a few pieces working together to create a multi-sensory experience that your brain kind of perceives as making sense. There's a hardware component, which is our micro technology that's able to produce very, very small, precise amounts of scent at a time. That allows us to turn scent on and turn scent off in just a few hundred milliseconds, which has never been done before, so you're able to interact with your environment and perceive the smells of your environment at a rate that we kind of perceive as zero latency. Whereas in the past, if we released the smell into the air, it lingers in the air, and then you release another one and they can mix together and create either confusing or sometimes unpleasant experiences. So, the microtechnology, and its precision is important. The other important thing is that this is a wearable technology, so the scent is being dispersed fairly close to your nose which allows us to make those changes very rapidly. 


The second component is actually a software component and the software component really understands your behavior in the virtual world, and then tells the wearable device what scents to release at what time. As Rachel alluded to, scent is more effective the more context you give it, so you're able to create these associations or bring up memories of associations and one of the ways we do that is through the spatial feature that you experienced where as you bring a virtual asset closer to your nose, you begin to smell them and smell them more intensely the closer they get. Having that spatial element is an incredible way for your brain to associate not only the smell with a particular moment, but with an action and object and an experience. And so that's something that we're particularly proud of in the software framework. Rachel, did you have something you wanted to add?


Dr. Rachel Herz: Yes, thanks. What I just wanted to reiterate with respect to what Aaron was talking about with respect to association is because the sense of smell is uniquely connected to emotion and memory, it makes it such that all of our experiences have scent. So, something that people mostly think is that ‘I hate the smell of skunk.’ That's innate. I love the smell of a rose. That's an innate response. But actually, it's all based on learning and our past experiences with a scent. 


So, it's just as possible to have an experience with a scent be due to our past as it is to be able to create an association right now or in the future in terms of our experience with scent. I really wanted to underscore this with respect to association and how it's very changeable. It can happen anytime. We don't just have to go back to childhood memories. It can occur anytime in our life and what OVR is capable of doing is creating those associations right now, for use in the future.


Aaron Wisniewski: And Rachel, that's also a great segue into our theory, our philosophy of digital scent and how we actually create the scents themselves. Now, what you experienced was some familiar scents -- the marshmallow, the rose -- and that was really to kind of orient you to, like, what are the mechanics? What is it like to smell something in virtual reality and how does it work? But what we're really interested in is not recreating the smells of the world that we're already used to, but rather kind of reimagining or reinventing smell and creating an alphabet -- or a set of primary aromas -- that can create the variety and complexity that we're used to in the real world, in the digital world without necessarily replicating the exact smells or experiences. 


Because what we want to do is create new experiences, new associations in virtual and digital environments that may be reminiscent of something that we're used to but since it's limitless in the metaverse, we wanted to be able to recreate a very extensive variety of digitally native or digitally unique sensory experiences. So, the way that we've designed our scent cartridge is that we have nine what we call primary or categories of aroma -- smoky, floral, citrusy -- these archetypal categories that you can mix together in different combinations, permutations, and concentrations, to create new complex odors that are either familiar or may be reminiscent of something in the virtual experience that are completely new. So, you're not necessarily bringing in your previous memories or associations, but rather generating new unique ones, the same way that we do throughout our physical lives. We're kind of replicating the process, but not duplicating the experiences.


Michael Carrese: Well, right. Because lavender might have a bad association for somebody.


Aaron Wisniewski: Exactly, and especially as we kind of talk about what might be some of the health, wellness and clinical applications, whoever's applying the therapies have to be really careful not to trigger negative or undesired memories or emotions, inadvertently.


Michael Carrese: So, Jessie put me in a scenario where you had the floating orbs. I think this is what you were talking about where you guys had invented a smell -- and I picked up I think it was the purple one -- and it was a smell entirely created by you guys. It was in a meditation scenario, an ocean or something like that, and this is where you were building the association, I take it, so that I associate that smell with calm and peace and so whenever that's delivered to me, I can get into that frame of mind. Do I have that right?


Aaron Wisniewski: One hundred percent. 


Dr. Rachel Herz: And just to add to that, one of the other issues is that if you tell people or people are expecting they’re gonna get lavender, or they're gonna get vanilla and it doesn't match with their personal experience of lavender or vanilla, they get upset, and they don't follow along with whatever it is that they might have normally associated it to. It's like, "This isn't quite right," and "My lavender is like this." Everyone has a unique nose, biologically speaking. There are no two individuals, unless you have an identical twin, who actually have the same exact receptors expressed in your nose that detect the various chemicals that are the scents that we perceive. So, everyone is going to have a slightly different variation in terms of the pure sensory component, and then also in terms of the past associations and experience component. So rather than worrying about how to get that right for everyone, which is basically impossible, creating this novel universe of scent is really the way to go, and that's why OVR works so well.


Michael Carrese: Yeah. So, as I think you folks know, our audience has a lot of med students and health profession students and early career practitioners so I wanted to pivot to applications of this particularly in the health and wellness space. So, Rachel, can you help us understand how this can be applied or how it is being applied?


Dr. Rachel Herz: Sure. OVR is a tool that creates a multi-sensory environment and uniquely brings in the sense of smell with that. It has a variety of different wellness applications and some of the ones that I've started to look at are its potential in, for example, either the treatment or prevention of post-traumatic stress responses or dealing with people who have chronic pain and working to alleviate the sort of negative emotions around that experience. It also has potential in terms of alleviating anxiety as an adjunctive treatment for people who have depression and basically the whole range of mood disorders. So, it can really be used as sort of an addition to other forms of therapy as a mechanism to enhance wellness in a variety of these kinds of spheres but also in areas that are physical, because the sense of smell is so tied to our physical health as well. So, there's a real dimension that this can go down into our immune health and responses and all kinds of other aspects. There's really an enormous potential.


Michael Carrese: And Aaron, you and I were talking about applications in a clinical setting. Substance use disorder was one that you mentioned. Can you tell us about that?


Aaron Wisniewski: Yeah. There's kind of two ways that I'll talk about that. As Rachel mentioned, we are a tool that enables the creators of these digital experiences, or the conditions that apply them. So, there's a number of different creators or institutions that we work with, and we try to enable them with these tools. There are two studies that we were involved in that I think can speak to this that are really interesting. One was done with the University of Vermont Medical Center’s Department of Clinical Psychiatry where they were taking some self-reported data from inpatients who were experiencing pain, stress and anxiety of some sort. All of them did a few of these eight-minute experiences per week that were similar to what you experienced, which was a non-gamified nature experience. They wrote down their levels of pain, stress and anxiety on a scale of one to ten, right before, right after, and then about three hours after. The average reported feelings of pain, stress and anxiety went from a nine beforehand, down to a three afterwards.


Michael Carrese: Wow


Aaron Wisniewski: And what's also really interesting is that three hours later, they were still at a three. So, it might not just be distraction. There might be some learning that's taking place, or some associations are taking place in there. 


Then another study that was commissioned by a major CPG company actually also took into account biometric data and brain imaging and compared olfactory virtual reality to regular virtual reality. They saw a marked increase in happiness and decrease in feelings of depression and actually a decrease in blood pressure. In the brain imaging, whereas the brain looked more or less the same in regular VR, there's a flood of gamma activity in olfactory virtual reality. 


Now, we're not a medical company and none of this really indicates anything in particular. But we think they are really interesting signals...that this could have a lot of potential for wellness. In fact, it's being used at a number of detox and rehab facilities as a nonpharmacological intervention -- both in the acute detox space for people to kind of shut down the negative sensory input that they're feeling and replace it with some positive multisensory, but then also ongoing in the treatment as a tool to practice methods like mindfulness, breathing, exercise and meditation -- and what the technology in combination with scent does is it takes the pressure off of the individual to do the all the work right? We can kind of offload some of that work to the technology and then use scent, as Rachel mentioned, as a tool to both elicit positive feelings and emotions and thinking, and also create that association. So over time, the scent then becomes even more powerful through this compounding effect. 


Michael: I should say, I worked at the UVM Medical Center for about ten years in communications, but spent a fair amount of time on the floors in the hospital. I'm just imagining a nurse, let's say, in the middle of a busy shift can go into that very busy nurses’ break room where everybody's eating lunch and scurrying about, put this unit on and get into a meditative space, and even in ten minutes, just sort of be able to detach from what's going. And I'm saying all this with burnout in the back of my mind...that this could be some help in addressing that problem.


Dr. Rachel Herz: Well, there's actually been some studies which have looked at this directly... having these very short, immersive experiences as a way of having people be able to relax at work and then be able to be rejuvenated and go back to work in a much more efficient and happy mentality, and they've shown real success. So, there's definitely sort of not taking OVR as technology specifically but the concepts behind it and applying them to studies that have already been done. This totally suggests that this would be a perfect way of doing it and because the OVR technology is so portable and manageable and personalizable, someone can even go sit in their car for ten minutes and then come back in and feel completely rejuvenated. This could be at work or even at home. So, there's really a very wide range of applications for the OVR technology in everyday life, wellness and human health.


Aaron Wisniewski: I remember when we were preparing to do the study at UVM, one of the nurses was learning to use the equipment so she could administer it. She put it on and was in there for four or five minutes and she took it off and was like, "That was the first time I felt relaxed in six months." And this was in the middle of the pandemic. 


Michael Carrese: Yeah, I can believe it


Aaron Wisniewski: To both of your points. I think that anecdotally, and in the research, too, it indicates that there are some potentially really powerful uses for this.


Michael Carrese: So, as you folks know, we're a teaching company. We love to fill knowledge gaps. We love to have our guests give us some direction, and say, “You know, Osmosis, I wish people understood x better and you should make a video about that.” What would that be?


Dr. Rachel Herz: Something that's been so frustrating to me throughout my career is how little people know and understand about the sense of smell, and how much it is just dismissed across the board as really the sense that people would care least about if they lost. In fact, I just published a study this past year showing that 25% of college students would rather keep their cell phone than their sense of smell. And this is in the wake of COVID when people are much more aware of the terrible quality of life declines that are experienced with people who've lost their sense of smell. Still, people really just don't pay attention to it, and they don't care about it and they don't know about it. 


So, I wish people had a deeper understanding about how the sense of smell works and how it is involved in so many facets of our life -- physiologically, psychologically, socially and emotionally. It’s a part of our sense of self even. I mean, people who've lost their sense of smell can speak to all the ways that their lives have been changed by losing it. People don't recognize any of those things until, unfortunately, they have that experience -- if they do -- but otherwise just go anosmically through life sort of blind to the fact that their sense of smell is really giving them the fabric of their existence in so many ways, from personal relationships to intellectual performance. It really runs the gamut in our life and people should know that. There should be more courses, there should be more direct study of the importance of the sense of smell.


Michael Carrese: Aaron, how about you?


Aaron Wisniewski: The exact same thing, but I wouldn't have said it as well. The only thing I might add -- I think this is just because of the position we're in -- is that whether we call it the metaverse or VR, AR -- whatever we want to call it -- the direction that things are going is going to have a profound impact on every aspect of our lives, including our health and our wellness. Everything from biofeedback to telemedicine, and I think that there's a huge potential there. But because it's early stage, how it kind of plays out and how it gets used will be a product of who's involved in designing it, and who are the architects of this space. 


So, for the same reason, I echo Rachel in that I would love for people to become more familiar with and value their sense of smell more. I think getting involved in these immersive technologies and understanding them and how we can maximize the human benefit from using them is a huge thing right now, and the people who adopt early are going to have a great influence over how the space looks and feels and behaves.


Michael Carrese: Yeah, and I can imagine there are some med students listening right now who are maybe turned on to the idea a little bit of getting in and helping to shape how this is applied in clinical settings. 


Well, listen, this has been so educational and enjoyable, and I want to thank you again for having me out to your office and thank Jessie for bringing me through that experience. I wish you all the luck with this. It's really fascinating.


Aaron Wisniewski: Thank you very much. It was really a pleasure to talk to you.


Dr. Rachel Herz: Thank you. It was great to be here.


Michael Carrese: I'm Michael Carrese. Thanks for checking out today's show and remember to do your part to raise the line and strengthen the healthcare system. We're all in this together.