The basis of smell in digital social interaction: Exploring the effect of odor on virtual embodiment

An important aspect of digitalization is that we spend more and more time in online social interactions without physically being present, i.e. in a quasi-disembodied state. In addition, we typically do not get any information about the bodily signals of the persons we are interacting with. Both aspects are important, as increasing evidence show that a) perceiving one’s own body is highly relevant for various emotional and cognitive processes (embodied cognition) and that b) perceiving (and simulating) other person’s body is crucial for social cognition. While there are some rather isolated attempts to bring in the body back into virtual interactions by the means of introducing avatars into virtual space (virtual embodiment), these simulations of the body typically include only very limited sensorimotor cues, while other crucial bodily cues are neglected. The current project aims to investigate the influence of body-related odors (or the lack of it) on virtual embodiment and virtual interactions. Despite the fact that olfactory cues shape our daily social interactions to a large extent (e.g. Ferdenzi et al., 2016), they have been generally neglected both in embodiment research as well as in applied virtual reality techniques (e.g., Porcherot et al., 2018). One reason for that might be the technical difficulties in producing, preserving and reliably delivering odors. With the seed project, we aim to combine our knowledge from embodiment and virtual reality research (Laboratory of Cognitive Neuropsychology with focus Body, Self and Plasticity) and olfaction and virtual reality research (Ischer et al., 2014, Swiss Center for Affective Sciences -CISA-, University of Geneva) to address the question on how body-related positive (e.g., cosmetic related) and negative odors (e.g., synthetic sweat) influence embodiment, embodied cognition and sensorimotor sharing. Within this one year we aim to start and strengthen our collaboration by jointly supervise master students and develop and conduct first explorative behavioural experiments using multisensory stimulation paradigms (e.g. Lenggenhager et al. 2007, Macauda et al. 2015) in a laboratory setting. Furthermore, in order to both gather data in a more real-life setting as well as transfer knowledge to a wider population we aim to organize a joint workshop in the framework an exhibition on olfaction (FNS AGORA funding granted to S. Delplanque) in the “Musée de la main” (Lausanne, UNIL-CHUV). For the latter we will collaborate with the interdisciplinary art and research group BeAnotherLab (, who uses virtual embodiment of real stories to promote mutual understanding between different social groups. For obtaining the odors we will benefit from the already existing collaboration between the CISA and the perfume and fragrance company Firmenich, S.A (more information).

We believe that this interdisciplinary collaboration will be of great importance both for fundamental research as well as for applied sciences in the domain of virtual reality applications and digital interactions.


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