CES 2023: Smelling, touching take center stage in metaverse

Attendees wear VR headsets while previewing the Caliverse Hyper-Realistic Metaverse experience at the Lotte booth during the CES tech show Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Is the metaverse closer than we think?

It depends on who you ask at CES, where companies are showing off innovations that could immerse us deeper into virtual reality, otherwise known as VR.

The metaverse -- essentially a buzzword for three-dimensional virtual communities where people can meet, work and play -- was a key theme during the four-day tech gathering in Las Vegas that ended Sunday.

Taiwanese tech giant HTC unveiled a high-end VR headset that aims to compete with market leader Meta, and a slew of other companies and startups touted augmented reality glasses and sensory technologies that can help users feel -- and even smell -- in a virtual environment.

Among them, Vermont-based OVR Technology showcased a headset containing a cartridge with eight primary aromas that can be combined to create different scents. It's scheduled to be released later this year.

An earlier, business-focused version used primarily for marketing fragrances and beauty products is integrated into VR goggles and allows users to smell anything from a romantic bed of roses to a marshmallow roasting over a fire at a campsite.

The company said it aims to help consumers relax and is marketing the product, which comes with an app, as a sort of digital spa mixed with Instagram.

"We are entering an era in which extended reality will drive commerce, entertainment, education, social connection, and wellbeing," the company's CEO and co-founder Aaron Wisniewski said in a statement. "The quality of these experiences will be measured by how immersive and emotionally engaging they are. Scent imbues them with an unmatched power."

But more robust and immersive uses of scent -- and its close cousin, taste -- are still further away on the innovation spectrum. Experts say even VR technologies that are more accessible are in the early days of their development and too expensive for many consumers to purchase.

The numbers show there's waning interest. According to the research firm NPD Group, sales of VR headsets, which found popular use in gaming, declined by 2 percent last year, a sour note for companies betting big on more adoption.

Still, big companies like Microsoft and Meta are investing billions. And many others are joining the race to grab some market share in supporting technologies, including wearables that replicate touch.

Customers, though, aren't always impressed by what they find. Ozan Ozaskinli, a tech consultant who traveled more than 29 hours from Istanbul to attend CES, suited up with yellow gloves and a black vest to test out a so-called haptics product, which relays sensations through buzzes and vibrations and stimulates our sense of touch.

Ozaskinli was attempting to punch in a code on a keypad that allowed him to pull a lever and unlock a box containing a shiny gemstone. But the experience was mostly a letdown.

"I think that's far from reality right now," Ozaskinli said. "But if I was considering it to replace Zoom meetings, why not? At least you can feel something."

Proponents say widespread adoption of virtual reality will ultimately benefit different parts of society by essentially unlocking the ability to be with anyone, anywhere at any time.

Though it's too early to know what these technologies can do once they fully mature, companies looking to achieve the most immersive experiences for users are welcoming them with open arms.

photo Attendees wear VR headsets while previewing the Caliverse Hyper-Realistic Metaverse experience at the Lotte booth during the CES tech show Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
photo An attendee looks at Haptic Metaverse Gloves by AI Silk during the CES tech show Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
photo An attendee looks at Haptic Metaverse Gloves by AI Silk during the CES tech show Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
photo An exhibitor displays the OVR Technology ION 3 stand-alone wearable at the OVR Technology booth during the CES tech show Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, in Las Vegas. The ION 3 is a wearable device that delivers scents using cartridges, and the delivery system is synchronized with the content users are viewing in VR, AR, and mobile or desktop computing devices. (AP Photo/John Locher)
photo The OVR Technology ION 3 stand-alone wearable is on display at the OVR Technology booth during the CES tech show Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, in Las Vegas. The ION 3 is a wearable device that delivers scents using cartridges, and the delivery system is synchronized with the content users are viewing in VR, AR, and mobile or desktop computing devices. (AP Photo/John Locher)
photo Canon's Kokomo is shown at the Canon booth during the CES tech show Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, in Las Vegas. At CES 2023, Canon stepped away from its hardware mold and chose a new direction. Virtual Reality. Canon showcased its first application for a VR platform, called Kokomo, which enables face-to-face communication in a virtual space, complete with live-action video with handy equipment, at CES. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
photo Takuma Iwasa demonstrates the Megane X at the Shiftall booth during CES Unveiled, before the CES tech show, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, in Las Vegas. Megane X is an ultra-lightweight and ultra-compact VR headset compatible with SteamVR. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
photo The "mutalk" leakage voice suppression microphone is demonstrated with the Megane X, an ultra-lightweight and ultra-compact VR headset and the Flip VR, a hand controller at the Shiftall booth during CES Unveiled, before the CES tech show, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)