DUBAI — Smelling online could become a reality with new technology that is finding a home in the United Arab Emirates thanks in large part to government policies that are attracting innovative metaverse startups.
Open AI’s conversational ChatGPT, released in November 2022, served as a window into what's possible in tomorrow’s human-artificial intelligence relationships. Yet many futurists find it limiting and want more immersive technologies that allow people to not only talk to AI, but touch, taste and even smell in virtual reality environments.
The UAE is investing in the metaverse's economic potential. It developed the Dubai Metaverse Strategy in 2022 to bring 1,000 companies into the field, support 40,000 virtual jobs and add $4 billion to Dubai’s gross domestic product by 2030.
It's attracting the likes of Alistair Pernigo, a 21-year-old Italian inventor who is frustrated with the restrictions of digital experiences and markets that don’t understand the potential of the metaverse for humankind. He co-created Auralink, a startup for advanced technologies that detect, analyze and reproduce smells.
Pernigo is the creator of Meta-nose, a device that can detect gaseous particles and convert them into digital data. The human nose-shaped apparatus can identify thousands of smells including coffee, fresh grass and mold with more than 95% accuracy, according to Pernigo.
He told Al-Monitor that the Emirates understands the metaverse's potential. “Dubai has the vision,” he said.
“We’re trying to transform the way we interact with full sensory technologies and reproduce the full range of aromatic experiences digitally,” Pernigo said.
The self-funded startup is also exploring a wearable device that can communicate digital smells to the human brain. Through a node attached to the scalp, it sends an electric signal to the olfactory system to create the sensation of a smell.
Still in its early stages, the technology has its limitations. The smells it communicates are limited and still inconsistent, said Pernigo, but its potential is promising compared to other existing models.
“Stockholm University and Malmo University are recreating smells with a cartridge that emits chemicals into the air, but that is not really scalable,” he said, and requires bulky cartridges sent to users, a practice that is unrealistic and costly.
Pernigo seeks to grow Auralink’s research and capabilities in Dubai with the help of venture capital investor Sharad Agarwal, who believes few global markets are equipped to grow innovative companies like Auralink.
“Dubai has the ecosystem. It’s the first city to have a metaverse strategy and measure for the contribution of Web3 to the economy using gross metaverse product,” said Agarwal. The metric was coined in 2022 by the UAE’s Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence Omar Al Olama.
Dubai’s Virtual Assets and Regulatory Agency was established in March of 2022 and created bespoke rules, guidelines and incentives for working in the metaverse, granting licenses to companies operating with virtual assets.
While tokenomics like non-fungible tokens and cryptocurrencies have been the main focus of decentralized technology use known as Web3, Agarwal said they have the potential to work hand-in-hand with immersive technologies like digital smelling for commercial use with perfume brands and food and beverage companies.
“Imagine the marketing power of a restaurant able to have consumers smell their signature burger or freshly baked bread remotely by stimulating their senses online,” chief metaverse officer at the Web3 solutions company Cyber Gear told Al-Monitor.
Andrew Thomas, the managing director of the growth marketing agency NEXA, said the immersive technology commercial industry, which was valued at $21.66 billion in 2021 by market insights provider Precedence Research, is still in its early days.
The company found that North America made up 45% of the global market share in 2021 and that the industry is expected to reach $134.18 billion by 2030.
Interest is exploratory at the moment, said Thomas, and in the UAE, government enterprises are driving it forward. The country's Economy Ministry created its metaverse department last year along with multiple other government entities.
“Police in the emirate of Ajman have created a metaverse experience where you can hear conversations around you and walk to the virtual avatar of an official and ask them questions,” he said, citing spatial audio and visual sensing as the most common immersive technology tools in the metaverse.
Thomas said that it will take many years for the metaverse and immersive technology space to gain mainstream adoption. While ocular headsets that virtually teleport users into metaverse environments for an immersive experience already exist, he said it will take a company like Apple or Microsoft to develop a device that regularizes the virtual medium for everyone.
For the time being, the UAE is one of the only countries that are really exploring Web3 and allowing the market to grow with minimal restrictions, added Thomas.
“What they’re doing is creating an environment that allows people to come here, incubate their ideas and then test it on people that are willing to be involved in it,” he said.
Pernigo plans to move his company to Dubai in July to cultivate his Meta-nose smell detector and demonstrate its potential. He told Al-Monitor that Auralink’s digital nose device is capable of sensing mold development in food supply chains before they are visible.
In medicine, it has the potential to detect irregular physiological functions such as cancerous cell development by detecting unique odor patterns, he added. So far, his immersive technology is able to identify 44 diseases by sniffing different types of organic tissue.