CES 2023: smell, touch are at the heart of metaverse

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LAS VEGAS (TBEN) — Is the metaverse closer than we think?

It depends who you ask at CES, where companies are showing off innovations that can immerse us more deeply in virtual reality, otherwise known as VR.

The metaverse – essentially a buzzword for three-dimensional virtual communities where people can meet, work and play – was a major theme at the four-day Las Vegas tech gathering that ends Sunday.

Taiwanese tech giant HTC has unveiled a high-end VR headset to rival market leader Meta, and a slew of other companies and startups touted augmented reality glasses and sensory technologies that can help users feel — and even smell — in a virtual environment.

Among them, Vermont-based OVR Technology presented a headset with a cartridge containing eight primary aromas that can be combined to create different scents. The release is scheduled for later this year.

An earlier enterprise-focused version primarily used for marketing fragrances and beauty products has been integrated into VR goggles and allows users to smell everything from a romantic bed of roses to a marshmallow burning over a campfire fire. is roasted.

The company says it wants to help consumers relax and markets the product, which comes with an app, as a kind of digital spa mixed with Instagram.

“We are entering an era where augmented reality will drive commerce, entertainment, education, social connection and well-being,” the company’s CEO and co-founder Aaron Wisniewski said in a statement. “The quality of these experiences will be measured by how immersive and emotionally involved they are. Fragrance imbues them with unparalleled power.”

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But more robust and immersive uses of smell — and its close cousin, taste — are even further out on the innovation spectrum. Experts say that even VR technologies that are more accessible are still in their infancy and are too expensive for many consumers to purchase.

The figures show that interest is declining. Sales of VR headsets, which have become popular with gaming, fell 2% last year, a sour note for companies betting big on more adoption, according to research firm NPD Group.

Yet large companies such as Microsoft and Meta invest billions. And many others are joining the race to gain market share in assistive technologies, including wearables that mimic touch.

However, customers are not always impressed with what they find. Ozan Ozaskinli, a technical consultant who traveled more than 29 hours from Istanbul to attend CES, wore yellow gloves and a black vest to test a so-called haptic product, which transmits sensations through buzzes and vibrations and stimulates our sense of touch.

Ozaskinli tried to key in a code on a keypad that would allow him to pull a lever and open a box containing a shiny gem. But the experience was mostly a disappointment.

“I think that’s far from reality at the moment,” Ozaskinli said. “But if I were considering replacing Zoom meetings, why not? At least you feel something.”

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Proponents say widespread adoption of virtual reality will ultimately benefit different parts of society by essentially unlocking the ability to be with anyone, anywhere, anytime. While it’s too early to know what these technologies can do once they mature, companies that want to provide users with the most immersive experiences welcome them with open arms.

Aurora Townsend, the chief marketing officer at Flare, a company that will launch a VR dating app called Planet Theta next month, said her team is building its app to include more sensations like touch as the technology expands to wider audiences. widely available in the consumer market.

“Being able to feel the ground when you walk with your partner, or hold their hands while you do…subtle ways we engage people will change once haptic technology is fully immersed in VR,” said Townsend.

Still, many of these products are unlikely to see widespread use even in gaming in the coming years, said Matthew Ball, a metaverse expert. Instead, he said the pioneers of adoption are likely fields with higher budgets and more precise needs, such as bomb units that use haptics and virtual reality to aid in their work and others in the medical field.

In 2021, Johns Hopkins neurosurgeons said they used augmented reality to perform spinal fusion surgery and remove a cancerous tumor from a patient’s spine.

And optical technology from Lumus, an Israeli company that makes AR glasses, is already being used by underwater welders, fighter pilots and surgeons who want to check a patient’s vital signs or MRI scans during a procedure without having to look at multiple screens, David said Goldman, the company’s vice president of marketing.

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Meanwhile, Xander, a Boston-based startup that makes smart glasses that display real-time captions of face-to-face conversations for people with hearing loss, will launch a pilot program next month with the U.S. Veteran’s Administration to test some of its technology. said Alex Westner, co-founder and CEO of the company. He said the agency will allow veterans who have appointments for hearing loss or other audio problems to try the glasses in some of their clinics. And if things go well, the agency is likely to become a customer, Westner said.

Elsewhere, major companies from Walmart to Nike have launched several virtual reality initiatives. But it’s unclear how much they can benefit during the technology’s early stages. The consulting firm McKinsey says the metaverse could generate up to $5 trillion by 2030. But beyond gaming, much of current VR use remains somewhat of a fringe entertainment, said Michael Kleeman, a technology strategist and visiting scientist at the University of California San Diego. .

“If people are promoting this, they should answer: what is the value of this? Where’s the profit? Not what’s fun, what’s cute and what’s interesting.”

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For more coverage of CES, visit: https://apnews.com/hub/technology