On a trip to Mars, VR could combat loneliness and boredom
US researchers are working on scents for virtual reality worlds. The scents in VR are meant to protect the mental health of astronauts on years-long space missions.
"During long-duration spaceflight missions, astronauts experience significant sensory deprivation. This can have detrimental consequences on multiple levels, from physiological responses to stress and isolation to decrements in behavioral health and wellness," said Dr. Ana Diaz Artiles.
She is an assistant professor in the Department of Astronautical Engineering at Texas A&M University. The isolation of space, which is dangerous for astronauts, could be addressed through specialized VR experiences.
Fighting loneliness in Space with VR
Space is a lonely place. But in the near future, astronauts are expected to land on the moon and stay there for a long time. Later, NASA wants to go to Mars.
With these long stays in space in mind, researchers aim to ensure the mental well-being of astronauts. The flight to the Red Planet is expected to take about three years, during which communication with Earth will be delayed by about 20 minutes. During this time, the crew is confined to a few square meters of space.
Social contact with Earth or care packages, such as those sent to the International Space Station (ISS) today, will be virtually impossible during a Mars mission. So Dr. Diaz Artiles is turning to virtual reality to promote the crew's mental and physical health. One focus is on smell-enhanced VR environments.
"We are creating 'augmented' or 'enriched' multisensory experiences that could lead to healthier individuals with improved behavioral health and performance," Artiles said.
When we smell something, olfactory information is transmitted to the limbic system, explains Dr. Diaz Artiles. This part of the brain is involved in emotional and memory processes. A perfume, for example, can trigger certain emotions.
Manufacturers of VR headsets are also taking advantage of this effect. At the world's largest electronics trade show, CES 2023, for example, a VR headset equipped with scent cartridges was unveiled to enchant consumers during VR shopping.
There have been several attempts at olfactory VR in the past, including a zombie smell module. Although these and similar concepts have not yet caught on, even VR guru John Carmack believes that olfactory VR is possible, as do the researchers in Texas.
They work with smells that are triggered by the places visited in the VR environment. For example, an astronaut can walk to a river in virtual reality, hear the water, and smell the wet grass on the bank. Transparent hotspots are hidden in the VR environment that trigger the smells when the avatar touches them. The researchers do not explain the most interesting part: how they plan to simulate the smell technically.
Natural scents increase general well-being
Nature has a positive effect on body and mind, the researchers say, and so they want to bring a piece of Earth to the astronauts in VR. The addition of smells is intended to make the experience as real as possible.
In their study, they found that smells not only reduced anxiety before and after a simulated dangerous situation on board - they also increased well-being when relaxing.
Dr. Diaz Artiles envisions "virtual care packages" in the future. For example, family and partners will be able to send virtual flowers into space that smell like roses. The goal is to keep astronauts in touch with home.