A group of engineers at Birmingham University are developing a new technology that releases odours throughout the duration of a video game.
Headed up by Professor Bob Stone – who has previously worked on several ‘serious game’ projects – the team are currently testing the smell-technology on a variety of self-made PC games based on the Half Life and Far Cry SDKs.
Stone’s group have obtained numerous pots of paraffin wax that are laced with a variety of aromas. Combined, they are said to capture the smell of a wide range of locations and situations, from the cordite residue of gunfire to the burnt rubber rising from a racetrack.
These pots of wax are placed into a boxed fan, which is fitted to a PC and throws a scent under the player’s nose when triggered by an in-game event.
“Smell is the most underrated sense, but next to vision is the most information-rich one we have,” says Stone, speaking to Soldier Magazine. His team have previously worked on several serious games which simulate a range of complicated tasks, such as operating submarine rescue crafts as well as controlling ship-mounted miniguns.
Part-funded by the Ministry of Defence, the project will ultimately be used for a military training game, though currently the system is being tested by a number of students at Birmingham.
Now twelve months into the three-year project, the Birmingham team are extensively testing the accuracy of the software and peripheral set-up. One such tester is PhD student and former Royal Navy sailor Mark Blyth.
“The smell is activated when the virtual soldier walks past something like a market or a tiny side street, and the computer triggers the scent,” he said. “What we are trying to discover is if smell enhances a person’s perception.”
Blyth adds that, as certain smells activate people’s memories, the plan is to get soldiers who have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan to smell the game’s aromas and evaluate how realistic they are.
The boxed odour fan attached to the PC, known as a “scent delivery system” (SDS), has eight chambers to hold and mix over 100 compatible types of scented wax.
The device itself costs as little as $25, bypassing a hurdle that could have otherwise prevented the system from becoming mass-market, and perhaps someday used in recreational games.
The human body has five recognised senses; touch, taste, vision, smell and sound. Video games only fully address two of those senses, while force-feedback peripherals have fairly limited ways of capturing touch.
If smell is channelled through games, then the medium may be able to make a significant forward step in player immersion, though a number of practical hurdles need to be overcome for this to be a reality.
“It’s a way of capturing feelings,” says Blyth. “Sometimes people have a sense that something is wrong, but we have to find out how they know that. Is it smell? Is it someone running through the marketplace? Is it the silence? If smell is one of the main factors then there is a lot of scope for this to be used to help train soldiers’ noses.”
The game software is now demonstrating several different scenarios, from a ‘sniper position’ to a swelling crowd of people.
The project remains subject to MOD approval.
A full interview with Blyth and Stone can be found at Soldier Magazine.