Smelling strawberries, smoke and space in virtual reality

ASU researcher works to add realistic smells to educational VR

September 9, 2022

​Virtual reality, or VR, has been a topic that has fascinated the public for years.

Movies like “Ready Player One” show the varied possibilities of this technology. Now, Arizona State University researcher Robert LiKamWa wants to take users one step closer to the future of VR. A man with a VR headset with a hose-like smelling apparatus attachment Associate Professor Robert LiKamWa and Assistant Professor Christy Spackman’s research team is working to add realistic smell to virtual reality. They hope to use it for applications such as smelling contaminated water and preparing future space colonists for environments they might encounter. Photo courtesy Alireza Bahremand Download Full Image

LiKamWa, an associate professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and an assistant professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, leads a multidisciplinary team of students and faculty from across ASU departments to incorporate realistic, environmentally-sensitive smell into VR for more than just entertainment.

He and his team see possibilities for VR to be a valuable tool in a variety of scenarios in which smells represent vital information and are a powerful emotional tool.

While others have developed smell for VR, the ASU team is working on elements to enhance the experience, like incorporating different intensities of smells depending on how close the user is to a scent and combining multiple odors that can be present in the virtual environment.

The project known as the Smell Engine emerged from work that Tanya Harrison, former director of research at the ASU NewSpace initiative, had been leading for the university’s Interplanetary Initiative. Harrison’s original intent was to incorporate smell into virtual reality training for space exploration applications.

“When Tanya first called me and said she wanted to understand how outer space smells, I thought, ‘That’s so weird, I have to say yes to this project,’” says Trustees of ASU Professor Brian Smith, from the School of Life Sciences .

Along with LiKamWa and Smith, Harrison brought together a team that includes Research Associate Professor Richard Gerkin from the School of Life Sciences, Assistant Professor Christy Spackman from ASU's School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, as well as electrical engineering doctoral student Jessica Lai and computer engineering doctoral student Alireza Bahremand.

After Harrison left ASU in 2019 to join NewSpace commercial partner Planet as director of strategic science initiatives, the project kept going and took on a life of its own.

LiKamWa’s augmented and virtual reality research lab where Lai and Bahremand work, the Meteor Studio, took over much of the work overseeing the engineering side of the project. LiKamWa and Spackman collaborated on a grant proposal paper, which won them $850,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation to support the work. The research led to a prototype platform the team developed for testing.

“It’s exciting to collaborate across disciplines for this project, combining the budding software and hardware engineering expertise of our doctoral students with the rich understanding of olfactory systems from Dr. Brian Smith and Dr. Rick Gerkin,” LiKamWa says. “Even more importantly, infusing this partnership with Dr. Spackman’s sociocultural lens on how our sense of smell drives our relationships with food, water, education and training have empowered this collaboration to seek broader applicability of the research.”

Bahremand took the lead writing an academic paper, published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and titled “The Smell Engine: A system for artificial odor synthesis in virtual environments,” about how the Smell Engine works.

“I spent several years attending conferences and reviewing the literature on olfactory displays to understand the software,” Bahremand says. “Through this intensive research period, we found a need to design a hardware-software framework capable of computing and delivering olfactory cues on the fly in virtual environments.”

The technology uses an olfactometry system that delivers smells through an apparatus placed over a user’s nose.

LiKamWa leads the engineering side of the project, overseeing the development of the hardware and software needed to deliver smells to a user, while Spackman takes the lead on developing training materials for the system’s future use in educational applications.

One of the challenges the team faces is how to mix different chemical compounds to recreate smells from the real world. This is where Lai’s role comes into play. Her first test to analyze how well the technology works is to accurately represent the smell of a strawberry in various stages of freshness.

“Olfaction can evoke and enhance a range of emotions, and emotions are the base layer for human thought and action,” Lai says. “Ubiquitous digital smell could benefit people by expanding their digital media tool set to enhance different emotions and their perception of what is real.”

While representing a smell accurately is a major factor, Smith helps keep the project on track with his understanding of smell’s biology. He notes that a real environment has many factors at play that the Smell Engine will need to replicate, including turbulence blowing odors around in an environment and how strong a smell is in different areas of an environment.

Given the Smell Engine’s goal to accurately replicate smells in a chaotic environment, Smith envisions applications that include educating firefighters on dangers for which they need to stay alert and teaching potential space colonists what Mars might smell like.

Ubiquitous digital smell could benefit people by expanding their digital media tool set to enhance different emotions and their perception of what is real.

— Jessica Lai, electrical engineering doctoral student

Spackman sees another potential educational application for the Smell Engine: training people to know what water should smell like. She says some of the primary reasons people opt to drink bottled water instead of tap water is because they don’t trust the safety of municipal water systems and they don’t like the taste.

Spackman hopes that adding smell to VR will help those working in water management to recognize when water is contaminated.

“Teaching folks who are going to be out there on the front lines working with water all the time so they get up to speed more quickly, that could have a big impact,” Spackman says.

Beyond educational applications, the team envisions a world of possibilities to implement smell into VR, such as gaming and VR movie experiences.

TJ Triolo

Communications Specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


ASU alum works toward equitable society following recent master's degree

September 9, 2022

The School of Politics and Global Studies is laying the foundation for success in graduate school by creating access to opportunities that spark interest and passion, benefiting students well beyond college years. 

Arizona State University political science alum Kayla Green recently graduated from American University School of International Service with a Master of Arts in international affairs.  Portrait of ASU alum Kalya Green. Kayla Green Download Full Image

Green self-designed the regional and thematic concentrations of her degree in order to become a well-informed expert in her area of study. 

“My MA gave me a greater comprehension of Africa’s colonial history, comparative political economy, economic development, peace building and so much more,” Green said. 

Her time at ASU studying at the School of Politics and Global Studies gave Green a strong foundation that allowed her to transition into the international affairs realm. 

Through ASU’s Global Education Office, Green was able to complete three study abroad programs, each with an internship component. 

“I used these work experiences on my resume to make myself a stronger candidate for graduate programs and other job opportunities,” Green said. 

During her time abroad, Green had the opportunity to study in Ghana, Italy and in Washington, D.C., through the ASU Capital Scholars Program. It was abroad where she developed her passion for African affairs and gained life changing experiences that helped shape her academic journey. 

Green recommends that all ASU students complete at least one study abroad trip to enhance their passions and gain hands-on experience in the workforce. Although she needed to take out student loans to help fund these opportunities, the programs she completed have helped cultivate her academic and professional experience. 

“These experiences certainly set me up for success, but I also needed to take out student loans to fund these experiences that I am still paying off; that’s not a reality I want to shy away from,” Green said. 

Green is currently positioned as an Africa Program Fellow in the Business Council for International Understanding, an organization that offers commercial diplomacy services to leading organizations and governments around the world to help promote the expansion and understanding of global trade and commerce. 

In her position, Green works closely with the Africa unit, where she conducts research, manages correspondence and assists with program writing. 

Green hopes to eventually become a development practitioner in Sub-Saharan Africa, where she can help countries with fast-growing populations expand the capacity of their institutions to better provide resources and opportunities for their citizens. 

Green’s wish is that everyone lives in an equitable society with “autonomy over their own lives,” in which success is not restricted based on where you were born or what your socioeconomic situation is.

“Everyone deserves the right to self-actualization, and if I can in some way expand access to this in the development sector, that would be a dream come true,” she said.

Student Journalist, School of Politics and Global Studies