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'Odor simulation' included in China's national VR plan

Beijing nose best, wants VR to work in sport, tourism. industrial sims, at 8K with 60fps

China's government has published a plan for the nation's virtual reality industry and included a suggestion to promote research in "odor simulation" – suggesting Beijing has decided the time has come for the Internet of Smell.

The plan is typically Chinese. It sets a target of shipping 25 million devices a year by 2025 and calls for the establishment of ten VR parks at which applications are explored, plus the development of at least 20 scenarios in which VR will be used and 100 "integrated application pioneer cases."

The plan also calls for broad research on technologies that contribute to more immersive VR – among them "gesture tracking, eye tracking, expression tracking, full-body motion capture, immersive sound field, high-precision environmental understanding and 3D reconstruction technology … myoelectric sensing, odor simulation, virtual movement, touch." Research on how to use resources at the network edge to render 5G content is on the agenda, as is work on fast network connections between devices and VR headgear.

A brain-computer interface is also on Beijing's agenda, aimed at promoting "the development of sensory interaction in the direction of naturalization, situationalization, and intelligence."

So are 8K displays with 60-frames-per-second refresh rates, and miniaturized 4K displays. Smartphones are also to be upgraded so they serve as VR displays – which sounds like the end for Google's Cardboard VR viewer.

China also wants an open VR platform that allows multi-person collaboration and simulation. That sounds a lot like an actual metaverse, rather than the Zuckerbergian vision of VR apps built on a Meta-platform.

All of the above is to be developed with an eye on applications in the arts, tourism, sport, safety drills in dangerous environments such as mines and complex assembly jobs.

Analyst firm IDC estimated global sales of VR headwear reached 11.2 million units in 2021, with China buying about half a million units. The analyst predicted shipments will graze the 50 million mark in 2026.

By way of comparison, IDC found 13.5 million folding smartphones shipped in 2021 and predicted 41.5 million units will make it out the door each year by 2026. VR is therefore behind foldables now, but will grow more strongly.

Yet China's plan doesn’t explicitly state if the 25 million shipment figure is annual consumption or cumulative shipments between now and 2025. Whatever definition Beijing has used, the plan does not call for mass adoption – given China's population is 1.4 billion.

While the plan calls for development of plenty of technology, it does not acknowledge the fact that the powerful systems-on-a-chip likely to be needed for VR are just the sort of kit that trade sanctions have denied to Chinese manufacturers – with consequences such as the near collapse of Huawei's high-end handset business.

And with China seemingly stealing a march with plans for an Internet of Smell, the world will surely respond by holding back on nose-related tech to prevent any whiff of strategic inferiority being detected. ®

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