CES 2023: Smelling, Touching Take Center Stage in Metaverse

Is the metaverse closer than we think?

It depends on whom 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 ends 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 says 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% 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.

Aurora Townsend, the chief marketing officer at Flare, a company slated to launch a VR dating app called Planet Theta next month, said her team is building its app to incorporate more sensations like touch once the technology becomes more widely available on the consumer market.

“Being able to feel the ground when you’re walking with your partner, or holding their hands while you’re doing that… subtle ways we engage people will change once haptic technology is fully immersive in VR,” Townsend said.

Still, it’s unlikely that many of these products will become widely used in the next few years, even in gaming, said Matthew Ball, a metaverse expert. Instead, he said the pioneers of adoption are likely to be fields that have higher budgets and more precise needs, such as bomb units using haptics and virtual reality to help with their work and others in the medical field.

In 2021, Johns Hopkins neurosurgeons said they used augmented reality to perform spinal fusion surgery and remove a cancerous tumor from a patient’s spine.

And optical technology from Lumus, an Israeli company that makes AR glasses, is already being used by underwater welders, fighter pilots and surgeons who want to monitor a patient’s vital signs or MRI scans during a procedure without having to look up at several screens, said David Goldman, vice president of marketing for the company.

Meanwhile, Xander, a Boston-based startup which makes smart glasses that display real-time captions of in-person conversations for people with hearing loss, will launch a pilot program with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs next month to test out some of its technology, said Alex Westner, the company’s co-founder and CEO. He said the agency will allow veterans who have appointments for hearing loss or other audio issues to try out the glasses in some of their clinics. And if it goes well, the agency would likely become a customer, Westner said.

Elsewhere, big companies from Walmart to Nike have been launching different initiatives in virtual reality. But it’s not clear how much they can benefit during the early stages of the technology. The consulting firm McKinsey says the metaverse could generate up to $5 trillion by 2030. But outside of gaming, much of today’s VR use remains somewhat of a marginal amusement, said Michael Kleeman, a tech strategist and visiting scholar at the University of California San Diego.

“When people are promoting this, what they have to answer is — where’s the value in this? Where’s the profit? Not what’s fun, what’s cute and what’s interesting.”

Source: Voice of America

Paxlovid Not on ‘Approved Drug List’ for China’s Health Insurance

China will not include Pfizer Inc’s Paxlovid in an update to its list of medicines covered by basic medical insurance schemes as the U.S. firm quoted a high price for the COVID-19 drug, China’s Healthcare Security Administration (NHSA) said Sunday.

The COVID-19 antiviral drug is currently covered by the country’s broad health care insurance scheme under temporary measures the regulator introduced in March last year as outbreaks rose.

But authorities held talks with Pfizer in recent days to decide whether to include it in the latest version of their list, which they update annually.

Inclusion on the list means a drug is accessible via state insurance schemes, which will boost volumes but comes with the condition that manufacturers lower prices. Past rounds have seen drugmakers cut prices by as much as 62% after negotiations with officials.

“We will continue to collaborate with the Chinese government and all relevant stakeholders to secure an adequate supply of Paxlovid in China. We remain committed to fulfilling the COVID-19 treatment needs of Chinese patients,” Pfizer said in a statement, without elaborating.

The NHSA said Paxlovid would continue to be eligible to be paid for by state medical insurance until the current planned end-date to the temporary measures of March 31.

While the talks on Paxlovid failed, they succeeded with two other COVID-19 treatment drugs — herbal medication Qingfei Paidu granules and Chinese drugmaker Genuine Biotech’s Azvudine — which will be included in the list’s update, the regulator said.

Three years into the pandemic, China began pivoting away from its signature “zero COVID” policy last month after historic protests of the economically-damaging curbs that had been championed by President Xi Jinping.

The sudden loosening of restrictions has fueled a giant wave of infections and prompted many to turn to underground channels to procure remedies such as Paxlovid, which a clinical trial has found to have reduced hospitalizations in high-risk patients by around 90%.

Boxes of Paxlovid are changing hands for as much as 50,000 yuan ($7,313.15), more than 20 times the original price of 2,300 yuan, according to local media reports and social media posts.

Beijing has been largely resistant to Western vaccines but has greenlighted foreign oral treatments Paxlovid and Merck’s Molnupiravir. It approved Paxlovid in February.

Reuters reported Saturday, citing sources, that China is in talks with Pfizer to secure a license that will allow domestic drugmakers to manufacture and distribute a generic version of Paxlovid.

Last month, China Meheco Group Co Ltd said Wednesday it signed an agreement with Pfizer to import and distribute Paxlovid in mainland China.

Pfizer also signed a deal in August for Chinese drugmaker Zhejiang Huahai to produce Paxlovid in mainland China solely for patients there.

Source: Voice of America