Technology has till date been able to use our sense of sight and sound (and to some extent, touch) quite successfully in bringing virtual reality nearer to reality. So you have realistic-looking games, and graphics cards that are capable of rendering them; mice that let you experience the terrain you’re traversing, whether in an application, on the Internet, or on a CD-ROM; and sounds and music, thanks to MP3s and the like, which bring alive your experience in the virtual world. To enhance this virtual experience, technology now targets the nose and tongue.
That is, you will soon be able to smell and taste the virtual world’s offerings, and not just see or hear them.
The applications for this are all encompassing–from entertainment to e-commerce. You’ll be able to smell perfumes online before buying them, check to see if the food you’re buying is fresh, smell burning rubber in your favorite racing game, or send scented e-cards from scent-enabled websites. As this technology gains mass appeal, there’s no stopping it from entering into all areas of the virtual world.
Creating a ‘smell’ is a complex process because our nose has 10 million olfactory cells, each of which has thousands of receptors.
Each receptor can respond to and recognize only one fragrance, and each olfactory cell uses only a few of its receptors at a time to distinguish a particular fragrance. So when a molecule of an external smell is transmitted to the nose, it combines with some receptors in a chemical and electrical reaction to give us one kind of smell. Another molecule will combine with another, possibly intersecting set of receptors to give us the sense of another smell. This makes it difficult to exhaust all the smells possible in the universe and create them artificially. At best, we may be able to create substitutions that may not always be palatable.
Scientists have calculated that a thousand basic odors should be able to create almost all other odors, and companies so far have been successful in creating about 200—250 of these.
The other problem in creating smells is the input device. Usually, electronically created noses are used to input the smell that needs to be created artificially. These noses work in the same way as a human nose, using a set of receptors that combine with various smell molecules. However, these noses cannot detect smell as accurately as a human nose can.
Another problem in how a database of smells can be created that would be independent of both input and output devices, which would help in widespread adoption of this technology. As of now, each company is working on its own database, so that the smell of ‘chocolate’ created by the output device of one company can be different from the smell created by that of another for the same product. However, it’s difficult to build such a standard, because of the large number of permutations and combinations possible in scents; and in the absence of such standards, it will be difficult for users of one solution to use another to get their PC smell-enabled.
There are many companies working in this area, some of which have made major strides in digitizing smell and being able to reproduce it on demand.
iSmell that smell
iSmell is a Personal Scent Synthesizer developed by California-based DigiScents (www.digi- scents.com). It’s a peripheral device that connects to the USB port of your PC and contains a consumable cartridge of 128 primary odors. To create scents that can be put on websites or in DVD tracks, DigiScents has indexed thousands of smells based on their chemical structure and their place on the scent spectrum, and coded and digitized these into small files. When you visit a scent-enabled website or click on a scented e-mail, the iSmell uses a mix-and-match of odors to recreate and release that smell in your vicinity. You can replace the scent cartridge periodically to keep smelling the fragrances.
DigiScents also has solutions for the industry and for developers, including ReminiScents database of scents, which, as the name suggests, contains various scents that can be used under license for games, advertisements, websites, movies, and the like. It also has a developers’ kit and a scent-creation tool for creating scents and adding them to various applications; ScentPlayer Software for playing scented media like videos, games, and music; ScentStream software for transmitting scents with movies and music over the Internet; and other such solutions.
DigiScents has shut down operations due to a lack of funding, which stemmed from the current downswing in the market. However, it continues to license its technology and is looking for funding for a
SENX: Smell and taste
SENX (Sensory Enhanced Net eXperience) is a desktop printer-like device that lets you smell as well as print out flavors that you can lick and taste. Developed by Savannah-based TriSenx (www. trisenx.com), SENX also creates aromas from different ones stored in its 20-chamber disposable cartridge based on data programmed into a Web page or e-mail. Eventually, you’ll also be able to click on various scents and flavors appearing on a website, and mix and match them to create your own fragrance or taste. Since our sense of taste is largely dependent on our sense of smell, you’ll also be able to print out flavors on a special foil-like paper and taste the flavor by licking the paper. You can plug SENX into an external COM port of your PC. It will be powered by a rechargeable battery.
This device will probably be the first of its kind to be commercially available, as Trisenx has begun booking orders for it on their website. SENX costs $269 (when we last checked the website), inclusive of the SenxWare Scent Design Studio software. Developers can also download this software for free, after registering with the website.
AromaJet: Smells over the Internet
Another company called AromaJet.com (www.aromajet.com) has come up with a technology similar to the above to transfer aromas over the Internet and to use them in other ways. The company has developed products that use a combination of up to 16 ingredients to create aromas. Software coding combines these smells to create more distinct ones, which can then be put on the Internet to be activated through a user action like a mouse click. To receive this smell, you’ll need AromaJet’s hardware device, Pinoke, which also comes with a disposable cartridge. Digital signals in the software code will trigger the device to create and release that aroma in your vicinity. To use this in various applications like gaming or movies, the cartridge can be designed to contain exactly a combination of those chemicals that will be required for the application. Pinoke is a prototype, and the company also plans to increase its basic smell-creating chemicals from 16 to 32.
The flip side
Though the technology holds a lot of promise, it may have teething problems, first, in the accuracy with which natural smells can be created artificially and used universally (see box Creating smells) and second, in implementation. Smell is a very powerful sense to exploit at the conscious and subconscious level. To be appealing to you, the intensity, accuracy, and duration of the smell has to be carefully controlled. A fragrance that ‘smells’ artificial or too strong can evoke very strong counter-reactions. Also, some smells can evoke unpleasant memories, in which case the objective of making your experience more pleasant will be defeated. And this is an issue that can’t be controlled because different smells mean different things to different people. Another set of problems arises in the accuracy with which these smells can be created.
However, we can look forward to the chill of fear and the rush of excitement that will get enhanced from including smells in games, to spending a fragrant hour in an online perfume shop, or drooling over chocolates before ordering them from the Internet.