Mail Online (Link) (February 27, 2009)
A virtual reality helmet that recreates the sights, smells, sounds and even tastes of far-flung destinations has been devised by British scientists. The device will allow users a life-like experience of places such as Kenya's Masai Mara while sitting on their sofa. They can also enjoy the smell of flowers in an Alpine meadow or feel the heat of the Caribbean sun on their face.
Scientists say the device will also enable users to greet friends and family on the other side of the world as though they were in the same room. And students will even be able to find out what it was like to live in ancient Egypt, Rome or Greece.
Previously, scientists have only been able to use virtual reality technology to recreate sound and vision.
Now a team of British academics from York and Warwick universities are creating a virtual reality helmet they are calling the Virtual Cocoon. They say it stimulates the senses so convincingly they have called the experience Real Virtuality.
The virtual reality helmet titillates all five body senses while viewers sit at home on their sofas. The prototype helmet connects wirelessly to a computer which feeds it information about a virtual world or another part of the real world. It features a high-definition high dynamic screen - which produces pictures ten times darker, or 30 times brighter than conventional television.
A tube connected to a box of chemicals releases smells under the wearer's nose, while a similar device can spray flavours directly into the mouth and provide a texture sensation. The heat and humidity can be changed using a fan and heater, while surround-sound speakers recreate ambient noise.
Professor Alan Chalmers, of Warwick University, said the headset should be ready within five years.
The headset is being worked on by scientists at a number of British universities. He believes it will be used in long-distance business meetings, in schools to allow students to revisit history, or by families wanting to get a taste of exotic destinations.
It is also likely to be popular among computer gamers, particularly those who enjoy virtual roleplay games such as Second Life.
'The idea is not to replace reality but to complement it,' Professor Chalmers said at an event organised by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
He believes it will be possible too to explore other parts of the world in real time. For example, a device attached to a car on safari could record the sights, smells, sounds and heat and transmit the sensations over the internet to a Virtual Cocoon on the other side of the world.
Professor David Howard of the University of York said: 'VR 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.'
The helmet could also be used in training soldiers, police officers, medical staff or firemen.
Initial estimates suggest the helmet will cost around ??1,500.