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Smell technology takes global elite from snowy slopes of Davos to rainforest in just one sniff

Dr Emanuela Maggioni at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Tree at World Economic Forum in Davos

The University of Sussex’s innovative research into the untapped potential of the human sense of smell is being demonstrated in front of the world’s most powerful and influential leaders in business and politics at Davos this week.

Dr Emanuela Maggioni, postdoctoral researcher at the Sussex Computer Human Interaction (SCHI) Lab at the University of Sussex, is helping turn attendants into a rainforest tree as part of a conscience-raising virtual reality project at the World Economic Forum.

This year’s event will be attended by at least 18 national leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe along with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, the Duke of Cambridge and Sir David Attenborough.

Tree is a VR project, created by award-winning directors Milica Rec and Winslow Porter of New York-based New Reality Co, which allows the user to experience the growth of a tree from seedling to full form and then witness its fate first hand.

Dr Emanuela Maggioni at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

University of Sussex researchers Dr Maggioni, Robert Cobden and Prof Marianna Obrist have helped bring the smells into this multisensory experience through their novel scent-delivery technology. The team developed a software and hardware solution called OWidgets which includes a delivery device device that delivers bursts of compressed air to the user’s nose based on pre-defined design parameters. This technology was developed at the SCHI Lab over recent years.

OWidgets technology on display at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The SCHI Lab, based in the School of Engineering and Informatics at the University of Sussex, is looking at how smell, but also touch and taste, could be exploited in a variety of contexts to transform the interaction with and through technology.

Prof Obrist’s team of postdoctoral research fellows and PhD students have a broad variety of backgrounds in computer science, psychology, neuroscience and interaction design and together they explore tactile, gustatory, and olfactory experiences as novel interaction modalities.

Dr Maggioni said: “It is such a privilege to be part of the Tree exhibition at Davos and demonstrate our OWidgets solution. Working with the New Reality team has been inspiring and I hope it is only the beginning of the possible collaborations around smell to create truly immersive and compelling multisensory experiences.”

Prof Obrist said: “We are so delighted to be involved with Tree and we hope that as it continues its journey around the globe, thousands more participants will get to enjoy its important environmental message and experience our technological advances. Appearing at Davos is a wonderful platform to reach some very influential figures and to highlight the enormous potential of our scent-delivery technology.”

The research has been supported by a European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant and an additional ERC Proof-of-concept award.

By: Neil Vowles
Last updated: Wednesday, 23 January 2019