Virtual reality is all about immersive experiences. From VR therapies that treat PTSD to news reports that transport us directly into war zones, VR disrupts the way we experience the world. But when you add smell and touch to the mix—senses that resonate most strongly with our sense of presence in real life—it's harder still to differentiate reality from illusion.
"What is reality to you?" asked a tall young man as I entered a tiny house at the entrance of Tower Hamlets Cemetery in East London. Charles Michel, a chef-in-residence and researcher at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University, was about to induct me into a multisensory cinematic VR experience dubbed the "the Feelies" as part of this week's Shuffle Festival.
The Feelies was designed and produced by Shuffle Festival science director Grace Boyle, who brought together the researchers and the virtual reality films to create the multisensory experience. It was supported by the Wellcome Trust.
Michel led me up a narrow staircase where I found myself outside two doors: one labelled Za'atari (the name of a refugee camp in Jordan) and the other New York. "Just trust us and enjoy," Michel said, before handing me over to a "sensory technician" who clad me in a VR headset and led me blind into New York.
As I entered the room, I remembered that I hadn't had the greatest experience with VR in the past. The last time I used it, I found myself dangling from a safety rope as I "abseiled" down a cliff as part of a South Africa tourist promo. The experience was as pixelated as it was vertigo-inducing. But in director Chris Milk's version of the Big Apple in his VR film Walking New York (created by new production company Vrse.works), there were no such dizzying moments.
With regular VR, the viewer is projected into a visually different world; the Feelies augments this experience by providing smells and touch too. Real scents, slight temperature fluctuations, and other tactile sensations accompanied me in the virtual world as JR, a French artist, took me through the city.
At one point, I felt like a kid again, perching on JR's handlebars as he cycled through wide avenues, my seat rocking from side to side. In another instance, it was as though I was levitating over Times Square as a neighbouring helicopter's deafening blades blew gusts of wind into my face.
In Za'atari, the mood was different. The film Clouds Over Sidra, which was backed by the United Nations, narrates the story of a young Syrian girl in a refugee camp in Jordan. In contrast to New York, I sensed sand under my feet, and the temperature changes and smells felt more visceral. In one scene, I was outside as cold rain droplets spattered onto my body. In another scene, I sensed the familiar spices of the Middle East as the girl's family gathered for dinner.
The Feelies, explained Michel, was inspired by Aldous Huxley's novel A Brave New World and the Sensorama—a machine from the 1960s that is one of the earliest recognized examples of multisensory technology. The idea was to enhance the immersiveness of the VR world by drawing on all the senses.
"Sometimes in cinemas you get popcorn and that gives you a taste experience, but it's not connected with the experience that you're seeing on screen," said Michel.
Boyle created the olfactory, tactile, and motion experiences for the Feelies alongside Michel, perfumer Nadjib Achaibou, and a group of sensory technicians.
As the whole experience is conducted in two very small rooms, Michel told me that he and his team wanted to create a "sensory bubble" that tricked people into really believing they were in New York or Jordan.
"Here we adapted the smell to the movie, but it would be amazing to adapt a movie to touch, or to smell."
To create the "fresh" smells in New York, Achaibou said he used a mix of molecules called aldehydes that offer sharp, clean, metallic tones. "By mixing that with a little bit of citrus and coriander, I made my own interpretation of freshness," he said. For Za'atari, Achaibou used his Algerian mother's soup recipe for the foods in the film, and cumin along with molecules found in jasmines and roses for sweaty, earthier scents. He described the smells he created there as "more emotional" given the difficult circumstances endured by the people in the camp.
For both Achaibou and Michel, who are part of a budding group of artist and scientists dubbed "crossmodalists," multisensory VR is a way to break down the boundaries between the five senses.
Next up, Michel and Achaibou plan to tailor-make olfactory, kinetic, and tactile methods for their own film.
"Here we adapted the smell to the movie, but it would be amazing to adapt a movie to touch, or to smell," said Achaibou.
Michel wants to create a film that critically tackles the issue of consumption. "We're not realising how important it is that we eat less meat; global warming is driven in part by what we choose to put in our mouths," he said. "What if we could create a film where you get to taste meat, but in a meaningful way—what if you are confronted with the death of the animal, for example?"
In reference to the group's work with Za'atari, the pair aim to emphasise the ability of multisensory VR cinema to evoke more empathy from the headset wearer.
"This is kind of a meaningful experience," said Michel. "It's food for the soul in a way."
Update July 29: A sentence was added to this piece to clarify the role of Grace Boyle as designer and producer of The Feelies.