VR tech lets you see, hear, smell, taste & touch

Mmm, imagine being able to taste a digital bus strap...
Mmm, imagine being able to taste a digital bus strap...

Forget headache-inducing goggles and hissy sound, full sensory virtual reality - dubbed 'real virtuality' - is just around the corner.

With funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), scientists from the Universities of York and Warwick believe they have been able to pinpoint the necessary expertise to make possible a Virtual Reality (VR) device that is able to stimulate simultaneously all five senses with a high degree of realism.

Unveiled today in London (sadly just as a mock-up), the Virtual Cocoon will consist of a headset incorporating specially developed electronics and computing capabilities that can stimulate all five senses much more realistically than any other current or prospective device.

Not really real, in real-time

It could help realise the scientists' goal of 'real virtuality': a term coined by the project team to describe an experience in which all senses are stimulated in such a way that the user has a fully immersive perceptual experience, during which he or she cannot tell whether or not it is real.

Professor David Howard of the University of York, says: "Virtual Reality projects have typically only focused on one or two of the five senses – usually sight and hearing. We're not aware of any other research group anywhere else in the world doing what we plan to do"

"Smell will be generated electronically via a new technique being pioneered by a team at Warwick which will deliver a pre-determined smell recipe on-demand. 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."

A key objective will be to optimise the way all five senses interact, as in real life. The team also aim to make the Virtual Cocoon much lighter, more comfortable and less expensive than existing devices, as a result of the improved computing and electronics they develop.

A mock-up of the Virtual Cocoon was on display at 'Pioneers 09', an EPSRC showcase event held today at London's Olympia Conference Centre.

Mark Harris is Senior Research Director at Gartner.