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Texas A&M researchers are using multisensory virtual reality to help NASA astronauts

Department of Aerospace Engineering researchers are working with multisensory Virtual Reality to assist astronauts during long-term missions.

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Researchers in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University are working with multisensory virtual reality to assist astronauts during their long-term missions.

"The multi-sensory aspect we are looking at is non-traditional sensory modality. So in our particular case, we are looking at olfaction. So incorporating the sense of smell into VR " said Renee Abbott, a doctoral student in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. "In our VR environment, we have what is called digital scents."

Abbott and other aerospace engineering researchers are using digital scents as a countermeasure to help psychologically support astronauts when they're thousands or even millions of miles away.

"One of the main negative aspects of spaceflight is actually the sensory deprivation," Assistant Aerospace Engineering professor Ana Diaz Artiles said. "You get all these people in a very, very tiny space for a very long time, and they don't get to experience all the sensory stimuli that we experience here on Earth."

This NASA-funded research will allow the user to not only see and hear their surroundings, but also smell them. 

For example, if you wandered into a forested area, you could see the trees around you, hear the wind rustling, and smell the fresh scent of pine.

"In the VR environment, there are invisible hitboxes or trigger boxes," Abbott said. "So when the user crosses one of those, or when they enter a trigger box that will send a message to the device to disperse the corresponding scent."

The researchers are currently using the Olorama Scent Generator, which can disperse 10 scents at a time. In total, the company has close to 100 unique scents.

"My favorite one, I think the rain is one of the strongest that you can feel," Artiles said. "There are also roses that are pretty nice. Coffee, which I really liked too."

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