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Device Promises Virtual Reality With Touch, Taste, And Smell

The project team is using the term "Real Virtuality" to emphasize the goal of total perceptual immersion.

Virtual Cocoon

Virtual Cocoon
(click for larger image)

At the Pioneer 09 science show in London on Wednesday, researchers unveiled a mock-up of a virtual-reality headset that will provide input to the five major human senses.

The Virtual Cocoon helmet is being developed by scientists from the Universities of York and Warwick, with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, a U.K. funding agency.

Professor David Howard of the University of York, who's leading the project, observes that virtual-reality projects tend to focus on sight and sound. He said he's not aware of any other research group attempting to simulate sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.

If that sort of total sensory immersion sounds a bit like the holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation or The Matrix, Howard is comfortable with the comparison.

"The thought of The Matrix is reasonable -- if we achieve our goal of being able to give a user a complete and real perceptual experience where they do not know that they are in a nonreal world, then we have succeeded in terms of the research," he said in an e-mail. "This relies on being able to stimulate the senses appropriately both individually and together, taking account of any perceptual trading between the senses."

The project team is using the term "Real Virtuality" to emphasize the goal of total perceptual immersion. Although such effects may be achievable through pharmacological intervention, technological systems don't raise the legal and health issues of chemical solutions.

In a statement, Howard elaborated on the system being developed. "Smell will be generated electronically via a new technique being pioneered by Alan Chalmers and his team at Warwick, which will deliver a predetermined smell recipe on-demand," he said. "Taste and smell are closely linked, but we intend to provide a texture sensation relating to something being in the mouth. Tactile devices will provide touch."

Howard said that his team is committed to evaluating the economic and social implications of the Real Virtuality technology being developed.

Possible uses for immersive virtual reality include re-creating historical scenes, providing an alternative to polluting leisure and business travel, and telemedicine, not to mention gaming and training.

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