A new technology being developed by OW Smell Digital that promises to bring new levels of emersion and sensory experience to the Metaverse has now secured £1 million in the latest seed fund round led by UK-based VC Parkwalk, which also recently invested in Bramble Energy and Pathfinder.
Like it or not, the Metaverse is here and will quickly become an ever-increasing presence in our daily lives in the not-so-distant future. A major component of this new technology is virtual and augmented reality [VR & AR].
Despite many false starts spanning decades, advancements have finally made VR a technology that is appealing and accessible enough to be adopted on a large scale. However, these advancements are firmly in the audio and visual realms, with some headway finally being made with realistic touch sensations. One sense that seems to have been over-looked is smell. It is not that people have not tried to introduce smell into the world of entertainment; they have; they just failed each time.
Smell is a far more complicated and important sense than you may think. Simulating smells is not simply a case of combining various chemicals and then releasing them into the air. Your nose does a bit of quantum physics. No, I’ve not lost my mind, it’s true, and is why food and fragrance companies employ professional smell experts to tweak their formulas.
The simple explanation is that two molecules can look the same, have the same structure and so should smell the same when they attach to your smell receptors. But they might not. It also depends on the charge and vibration as well as the shape of the molecule. That is why arsenic and almonds smell and taste the same despite having wildly different molecular structures.
Past attempts at introducing artificial smells to an audience saw the invention of “Smell-o-vision” and other similar ideas as early as the 1950s. But these inventions failed for various reasons. The sense of smell gives us an underestimated connection to the real world. Of all our senses, it is the one that can affect us most deeply, often without us realising. A smell can induce a calm state, or evoke a vivid, long-buried memory.
Many high-end hotels, restaurants, and other businesses inject specially selected fragrances into their air-conditioning systems to influence the behaviours of their guests. And most people have heard the idea of baking bread before someone views your house when you are trying to sell it.
So, introducing smell into a VR or AR world must be done right. The smells need to be accurate and delivered to the individual in a timely fashion. One of the drawbacks of Smell-o-vision was that the smells often reached members of the audience too late, were too faint, or were inaccurate, which caused the audience to become distracted or confused while trying to decipher the odours.
But despite its complexity, the ability to transmit olfactory signals along with audio-visual to consumers would open-up a whole new level of immersive entertainment and compelling advertising. It is easy to see how anyone who develops a system that overcomes previous issues is going to attract a lot of attention. That is exactly what is happening with OW Smell Digital and its founders, Emanuela Maggioni and Marianna Obrist who have just secured $1m in their seed fund round led by Parkwalk advisors.
OW was founded in 2019 out of the University of Sussex and University College London headed by lead scientists Maggioni and Obrist. They are developing a revolutionary system that digitizes the human sense of smell and, using AI, accurately and precisely delivers fragrances to an individual.
“We are looking to interrupt a marketplace dominated by technologies reliant solely on sound, vision and increasingly, touch. Our sense of smell has the power to evoke long-forgotten memories, bring food to life, calm us down and enrich our lives.” said Emanuela Maggioni, Co-Founder and CEO of OW Smell Digital, “We create smell technologies that can be used across a range of innovative contexts. From leading healthcare research to artistic and immersive experiences, our products offer a total digital command over scent and smell.”
John Pearson, Investment Director at Parkwalk explained what attracted their support of OW, “We are very happy to be supporting the team at OW, where Emanuela and Marianna bring a wealth of technical, commercial, entrepreneurial knowledge and expertise. This is an exciting company. OW provides a unique innovation to design, produce, and evaluate smell sensations and the impact these can have on individuals that we haven’t seen before.”
During a Q&A session with TFN following the funding announcement, Emanuela Maggioni explains how they got started and their future plans.
How did you come up with the idea for OW Smell Digital? What’s the story behind the idea?
“Our work together began at the University of Sussex Computer-Human Interaction Lab (the SCHI ‘sky’ lab) in 2016, where we shared an intellectual passion for both the sense of smell and its untapped potential in innovative technology. Off the back of our first research funding grant in 2017 (a European Research Council Proof-of-Concept Award), we were able to dive deep into our scientific research and development of digital smell technology without private investment. This allowed us to really focus on scientific advances with an open mind for the applications of our work. Based on that foundation, over the last few years commercial investors have allowed us to grow our team and build our devices and software systems, realising the ambition for an AI-powered smell technology.”
“New technologies are nearly always focused on our eyes and our ears – yet the sense of smell is one of the most powerful human senses, an integral part of how we experience reality in our everyday lives. We want OW to be to smell what Dolby and Adobe are to sound and vision: to transform an ecosystem dominated by audio-visual interfaces and devices.”
Who is your target audience?
“Smell is intrinsically linked to our emotions, and our products look to improve the everyday life of those who use them. Our work is focused in three main areas – health and wellbeing, immersive experiences, and innovative research. Our technology has been sold across the world to support leading studies in smell health (such as smell testing), and as part of research into consumer behaviour and cutting-edge technologies around immersive experiences.”
Was it difficult getting investment with such a unique line of thought?
“In some ways, yes. It has sometimes been difficult to convince people just how transformative it is to work with smell, and to get investors on board because of the novelty of the ideas. It is commonplace to rely on the visual and auditory mediums. Most of us are used to using a smartphone, reading a menu, customising an alarm, and yet very often, the use of smell in immersive experience and tech is an additional afterthought, purely representational.”
“Thanks to the Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellowship, however, Emanuela was able to establish a network of investors and partners supporting the ambitious business idea. And once we have been able to communicate the potential of our work, it taps into something so human that it is very intuitive to all.”
What is the future of digital smell technology?
“A lot of people have tried to use smell as an add-on for interactions and interfaces, but these additions nearly always just look to mirror reality – when you see a flower, you smell a flower; it’s a one-dimensional approach and poorly accurate. What we want to try to do is to go deeper, to harness the power of the sense of smell to push the boundaries of the audio-visual dominated world. Smell technology should open a new channel of interaction for everybody, with boundless applications. We are surrounded by smells, they are a fundamental tool in our emotional landscape – yet whilst we are constantly influenced by them, there is a distinct lack of tech to take advantage of their immense potential.”
“In terms of AI, our software is built using an extensive collection of smells to predict the perceptual, behavioural, and physiological effects of each different smell, for each different person. These preferences are extremely personal, rooted in individual memory and experience; the harnessing of AI is therefore an intrinsic concern of everything that we do.”
OW will use the funding to achieve their goals and expand their team. The investment is needed to continue the development of their digitally controlled multi-channel Scent Delivery Device hardware and adaptive, AI-powered cloud software.
Parkwalk is the largest growth EIS fund manager and the UK’s most active investor in backing world-changing technologies emerging from the UK’s leading universities.