Experts have plenty of ideas about what will constitute the next wave of the Internet and mobile communications. But in the ‘Pervasive Computing' department of City University London in the UK, Professor Adrian Cheok and his team are certain this will involve a fuller sensory experience – involving smell, taste and touch.
It is a future that is already starting to take shape. In late January, Professor Cheok took his department's technology to the world-renowned Madrid Fusion culinary festival in Spain, where he unveiled a mobile device and app combination – Scentee – which is capable of emitting food flavors. The technology, developed with a partner in Japan, is believed to be a world first.
Because of the context of the launch, the emphasis at the Madrid festival was the potential for chefs to showcase more of what they do to potential customers - above and beyond photos of their dishes which rarely do their creations justice. But Cheok notes that this is just a glimpse of what's possible.
‘Wish you were here'
Cheok's background is in augmented reality – the type of technology we're seeing now in innovations such as Google Glass. But to achieve a rich simulated reality you need to go beyond audio-visual media, he says. This is also the next area of potential for the Internet, he claims.
"Smell, taste and touch are important means of communication," Cheok explains. "As we move beyond the ‘information age' to an era of sharing experiences, what we want to do is give others more of a sense of ‘being there'."
That means being able to smell the coffee, taste the ice-cream, and feel the touch of another person. Cheok's innovations include ‘huggable pajamas', "so parents/grandparents and kids can feel each other's presence from opposite sides of the world via the Internet," he explains. A more practical, scaled-down version of this is a wearable ring – RingU - that can remotely transmit a squeeze to a loved one's hand (via a Bluetooth 4.0 connection to a smartphone). "Touch is so important for communication, and for times when you can't take a call, receiving a reassuring squeeze via the fingers can mean a lot." Remote ‘kissing' applications are further areas of exploration.
Taste and smell, meanwhile, are important because they are attached to the limbic system and associated parts of the brain that are responsible for emotion, mood and memory. The ability to simulate these sensory experiences at distance has great potential in all sorts of applications, from in-store advertising (for example, assigning wafts of scent to frozen food aisles – of what a product would smell like when cooked), to the use of smell as a memory trigger (with potential use for Alzheimer's patients, and so on).
So how does it all work? At this stage the technology is pretty crude, but undoubtedly this will be refined in future iterations, once the mechanics have been perfected.
In a taste scenario, a device with electrodes is used to stimulate taste neurons and taste sensations on the tongue, activated by digitized information sent over the Internet (as chemicals themselves can't be transmitted). Smell, which continues to be a work in progress, is the subject of similar projects, this time applying magnetic fields to the back of the mouth to stimulate the olfactory receptor, again without chemicals. In the case of Scentee, the smelling device is a bit like an inkjet printer, containing sachets of scents, triggered by a smartphone app.
Cheok sees potential for a fuller sensory experience in TV, cinema and art as well as ‘emotional' advertising, medical applications, and remote interpersonal communications. The gaming world will undoubtedly be keen to embrace it too – creating even deeper immersion experiences where players are able to smell the burning rubber during a car chase.
He says his university department in the UK is one of only a few groups of computer scientists globally to be looking seriously at multi-sensory media today. The City University London Pervasive Computing faculty combines several disciplines, from electrical engineering (Cheok's background), to neuroscience.
Cheok has connections to a team in Japan which is doing related work. In particular, a professor in Tokyo is working on new kitchen utensils that can alter the taste of food, for example to artificially make a dish appear sweeter or saltier - without the need to add the actual ingredient. With growing pressure on families and food producers to reduce levels of sugar and salt, this could be a development with both positive health implications and considerable commercial mileage.
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