Making scents: Vermont developers use smell, virtual reality to examine mental health

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According to some tech developers in Vermont, the future may be closer than we think.

Virtual reality, which lets you experience a computer-generated, three-dimensional world, is getting more advanced. A Burlington start-up, OVR (Olfactory Virtual Reality), is combining virtual reality with our sense of smell.

“VR can be an effective way to manage pain, stress, and anxiety,” said OVR Co-founder and CEO Aaron Wisniewski.

Now, the company wants to apply its potential to mental health, and Wisniewski has formed a partnership with UVM Medical Center.

“It’s unique from all of our other senses,” he said, “because it’s directly linked to the part of our brain that controls memory emotion and influences our motivation and our behavior.”

Wisniewski began studying the sense of smell at an early age. In May 2019, at TedX presentation in Stowe, he talked about the history of smell, its function, and future potential.

With virtual reality, a patient might not only be able to see another dimension, but smell certain objects, too. Dr. David Tomasi, a psychotherapist from UVM Medical Center, says this could help patients dealing with stress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

“Virtual reality seems to do just that. To provide a nurturing and therapeutically effective approach to therapy that will also go beyond the traditional psychotherapeutic modalities,” said Dr. Tomasi.

Wisniewski and his team develop thousands of scents. Flavors such as pizza, rose, and watermelon sit in bottles on the shelf in his studio. He says the pandemic heightens the need for this technology.

“It makes this type of study I think even more important,” he said. “As people look towards telehealth and digital therapeutics and technologies for their healthcare, you know, I think this is a time when we probably need it the most.”

Wisniewski and Tomasi plan to study patients’ experiences with the technology in the coming weeks, and they strongly believe in its health benefits.

“Olfactory Virtual Reality can be an effective part of a comprehensive mental health strategy,” said Wisniewski.

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