The first virtual reality technology to let you see, hear, smell, taste and touch

March 04, 2009

The first virtual reality headset that can stimulate all five senses will be unveiled at a major science event in London on March 4th.

What was it really like to live in Ancient Egypt? What did the streets there actually look, sound and smell like? For decades, Virtual Reality has held out the hope that, one day, we might be able visit all kinds of places and periods as 'virtual' tourists.

To date, though, Virtual Reality devices have not been able to stimulate simultaneously all five senses with a high degree of realism.

But 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 this possible, in a project called 'Towards Real Virtuality'.

'Real Virtuality' is a term coined by the project team to highlight their aim of providing a 'real' experience in which all senses are stimulated in such a way that the user has a fully immersive perceptual experience, during which s/he cannot tell whether or not it is real.

Teams at York and Warwick now aim to link up with experts at the Universities of Bangor, Bradford and Brighton to develop the 'Virtual Cocoon' - a new Real Virtuality device that can stimulate all five senses much more realistically than any other current or prospective device.

For the user the 'Virtual Cocoon' will consist of a headset incorporating specially developed electronics and computing capabilities. It could help unlock the full potential benefits of Real Virtuality in fields such as education, business and environmental protection.

A mock-up of the Virtual Cocoon will be on display at 'Pioneers 09', an EPSRC showcase event to be held at London's Olympia Conference Centre on Wednesday 4th March.

Professor David Howard of the University of York, lead scientist on the initiative, 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 Alan Chalmers and his 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.

There has been considerable public debate on health & safety as well as on ethical issues surrounding Real Virtuality, since this kind of technology fundamentally involves immersing users in virtual environments that separate them from the real world.

Professor David Howard says: "In addition to the technical development of the Virtual Cocoon, we aim to closely evaluate the full, far-reaching economic and other implications of more widespread application of Real Virtuality technologies for society as a whole."
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Notes for Editors

'Pioneers 09' aims to bring together forward-thinking researchers and business people. It is being organised by EPSRC and supported by the Confederation of British Industry.

Venue directions for Olympia Conference Centre, Kensington, London:

The nearest underground and overground station is Kensington (Olympia). Turn left out of the exit of the station and walk to the end of Olympia Way. Turn right onto Hammersmith Road. The entrance to Olympia Two is a short distance along on the right-hand side. Olympia Conference Centre is further along on the right-hand side.

For detailed directions and a map, please visit http://www.eco.co.uk/visitors/travel/

Virtual Reality is the term used to describe artificial environments created using computer software and presented in a way that encourages the user to 'believe' they are in a real environment. Although the idea of Virtual Reality has been around for decades, it has not yet lived up to its early promise. Cost, weight and lack of realistic sense stimulation have all been limiting factors. However, the possible benefits of the technology are enormous. For example, Virtual Reality could be a valuable tool in education (e.g. recreating historical scenes), leisure (e.g. 'travelling' to worldwide locations or sharing a 'virtual drink' with a friend), medicine (e.g. in training surgeons) and business (e.g. conducting 'virtual' meetings). As well as bringing economic savings and reducing the need to do dangerous things, it could also deliver valuable reductions in carbon emissions that are caused by air and car travel.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £740 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC also actively promotes public awareness of science and engineering. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK. Website address for more information on EPSRC: www.epsrc.ac.uk/

For more information, contact:
Professor David Howard, University of York, Tel: 01904 432405, Email: dh@ohm.york.ac.uk

An image is available from the EPSRC Press Office, contact: 01793 444404 or e-mail:dan.stern@epsrc.ac.uk
Picture caption information: I3 - Towards Virtual Reality.jpg: "Concept design of a mobile Virtual Cocoon"

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

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