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The Northwestern University researchers have developed a new ‘smell virtual landscape’ that enables the study of how smells engage the brain’s navigation system. The work demonstrates, for the first time, that the mammalian brain can form a map of its surroundings based solely on smells.

The olfactory-based virtual reality system could lead to a fuller understanding of odor-guided navigation and explain why mammals have an aversion to unpleasant odors, an attraction to pheromones and an innate preference to one odor over another.

The system could also help tech developers incorporate smell into current virtual reality systems to give users a more multisensory experience.

“We have invented what we jokingly call a ‘smellovision,’“ said Daniel A. Dombeck, who led the study. “It is the world’s first method to control odorant concentrations rapidly in space for mammals as they move around.”

Researchers said that studying this phenomenon has been difficult because odours are nearly impossible to control as they naturally travel and diffuse in the air. By using a virtual reality system made of smells instead of audio and visuals, Dombeck and graduate student Brad Radvansky created a landscape in which smells can be controlled and maintained.

“Imagine a room in which each position is defined by a unique smell profile,” Radvansky said. “And imagine that this profile is maintained no matter how much time elapses or how fast you move through the room.”

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Vijay Nanda

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