New innovations are offering sensory ways for brands to connect with consumers and, after a couple of years of sensory deprivation due to the pandemic, demand is potent. According to VML data from our new "The age of re-enchantment" report, 63% of consumers want brands to provide them with multisensory experiences, and 82% expect as many of their senses as possible to be engaged when experiencing something new.

Previously, visuals have dominated experiences and, indeed, sight is the sense that people most frequently expect to be stimulated when enjoying experiences (see "The age of re-enchantment" report for more). Now brands are increasingly able to tap into all the senses to truly amplify immersion.

A large black cylinder rests in a white room, with a light subtly shining from behind it and white scaffolding above it.

Xydrobe, launching in 2023, is a pioneering experiential concept for luxury retail that aims to immerse people in the vision and ideology of a brand. Shoppers will step inside a mysterious black “one-person experience pod,” a physical portal to transport them to virtual realms using “stunning visuals, scent, surround sound, and temperature control.”

Explaining the thinking behind xydrobe, CEO Nell Lloyd-Malcolm tells VML Intelligence: “You get an emotional reaction out of people when you have something that’s multisensorial. It feels real, so you’re able to put people into situations that they would never be able to do otherwise. It’s being a time traveler; it’s being someone who can actually feel as though they’re experiencing extraordinary things. We can’t achieve that in traditional retail, and we definitely can’t achieve it on ecomm.” Lloyd-Malcolm promises an experience that will “provide an outlet for brands to start engaging with storytelling that’s on a similar level to these big blockbuster Hollywood movies.”

Speaking of Hollywood, at CES 2023 Canon showcased its latest immersive tech innovations, in a partnership with the Universal Pictures thriller Knock at the Cabin, directed by M Night Shyamalan. Entering a full-size replica of the eponymous cabin, visitors were transported into the story via one of four immersive technologies, including Canon’s Kokomo virtual reality (VR) software, which enabled them to enter a photoreal environment and speak to one of four characters from the movie. Visitors wearing the Canon MReal mixed reality headset could put themselves in the characters’ shoes, barricading the doors of the cabin with virtual furniture while under attack from intruders trying to smash their way inside.

People rank touch as the third most important sense in delivering experience, but as Jody Culham, Canada research chair in immersive neuroscience at Western University in Ontario, tells VML Intelligence, the lack of “feeling” in VR is a major gap right now. “The big thing that’s lacking is a sense of touch,” she says. “There’s nothing commercially available that’s widespread.” In the future it should be possible to add this layer.

Three adult silhouettes stand in front of a blue and green digital screen.
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In Japan, NTT Docomo and collaborating institutions are developing the world’s first sensation-sharing technology, which allows users to send movements or tactile sensations digitally. Docomo already has plans to build on its Feel Tech technology, enabling the sharing of other sensations, like taste, hearing, and even emotions.

Smell is the sensation that people least expect to play a role in immersive experience, and indeed olfaction is the least understood of our senses from a scientific point of view, yet research tells us that it is highly evocative, able to transport us instantly to another place or time by triggering memory. And experience designers are now experimenting with scent as a narrative device to engage viewers more deeply. At the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, Indian film director A. R. Rahman premiered Le Musk, a VR cinematic experience that tells the story of an orphaned heiress on the trail of three mysterious men, each with a distinctive scent. Sensory direction was provided by London-based multisensory extended reality studio The Feelies, which created bespoke scents. Viewers watched the film from immersive VR chairs by LA-based Positron which also incorporate motion, pitch, and haptics.

Japanese scent technology company Aromajoin is helping to bring multisensory experiences to the home with its Aroma Shooter, a digital scent device premiered at CES 2023. Designed for gaming or movies, the technology can synchronize smells to videos using “solid state” cartridges, instantly toggling between different scents.

It’s worth noting that there is a sweet spot for the intensity of sensory immersion. While 64% of people expect digital and virtual experiences to activate all their senses, 54% report finding multisensory experiences overwhelming. Seems like a conundrum, but researchers are already working on a solution. Adaptive entertainment can adjust to individual preferences based on various biomarker metrics tracked using artificial intelligence (AI) and affective technologies like facial recognition. Coltan Scrivner, a behavioral scientist at the Recreational Fear Lab in Aarhus University in Denmark, shared details of ongoing work to develop “a VR game that learns what you’re afraid of. The idea is that instead of scaring you as much as we can, we want to keep you in that sweet spot, where you’re having the most amount of fun.” Such interactions will get ever slicker, as Ian Beacraft, CEO and chief futurist at Signal and Cipher, explained at SXSW 2023: “It’s not just about creating with AI. It’s about relating with AI. We’re actually going to have some sort of relationship with it.”

Sensory Techtopias is a trend in VML Intelligence’s report, "The age of re-enchantment."

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