12 January 2010

Digital scents

By
Cosmos Online
One day soon you may be able to capture a fragrance snapshot of your environment and send it attached to a text message or email.
Lady smelling flower

Credit: iStockphoto

You are driving to work in the morning and a gentle scent of citrus fruits is keeping you alert. There’s a fly in the car, but before it starts to annoy you the tiny sensor on your cuff button detects it and releases a targetted mist of insecticide.

20 minutes later, you arrive at the office smelling great; that new perfume you downloaded from the web is really doing it for you. In the afternoon, after a stressful meeting, the tiny biosensors in you clothes detect that you need to relax, so a calming lavender starts to fill your personal scent bubble.

This may sound like science fiction, but a handful of enthusiasts have been working quietly on the nascent technology. One of them is Jenny Tillotson, a researcher and a designer at the University of the Arts in London, England.

Tillotson produced the world’s first interactive scent outfit. She called her prototype dress ‘Smart Second Skin’. Smart because it senses the wearer’s mood, ‘second skin’ because it interacts with the wearer and their environment.

Smart Second Skin combines lab-on-a-chip technology with miniature bio-sensors. Lab-on-a-chip allows the storage and handling of tiny amounts of fluids on small chips. These chips can be programmed to release specific scents at specific times.

“Just as people store different genres of music on their iPods, this method offers a new sensory system to collect and store a selection of fragrances close to the body: a modern iPod of the fragrance industry embedded in fashion” Tillotson says.

Joseph Kaye, an IT researcher from Cornell University, in Ithaca, U.S. says he is sceptical about most existing applications of digital scent technology.

“A lot of the current technology is a solution looking for a problem,” he says. “We haven’t figured out exactly the right applications for it yet. There are astonishing things we could do with the technology, but I don’t think we have a good handle on what those are yet.”

One area that he says does looks promising are Tillotson’s computerised, wearable scents. “This is for a simple reason, that people do wear scents so there is a real potential there if that can be incorporated more into everyday life.”

Her newest gadget is the button-sized ‘eScent’. It contains bio-sensors that monitor changes in the blood pressure, respiration and skin’s electric potential. When it detects a change, it sends signals to the lab-on-a-chip devices, which then change the type or intensity of fragrance released.

Though currently crude at detecting more subtle mood changes, the idea is that eScent will eventually be able to detect stress or anxiety and then release appropriate scents to soothe the wearer. “I’m more interested in health aspects linked to aromachology, the science of fragrance, rather than just a gimmicky scent delivery system that substitutes the perfume bottle,” Tillotson says.

There is evidence to show that there is a direct link between the sense of smell and human health and well-being. “Three quarters of the emotions that we generate on a daily basis are affected by smell,” she says. “Certain odours can also relieve side effects from chemotherapy, or significantly benefit people who suffer from insomnia, muscle stiffness, bronchitis, poor concentration, indigestion, and high-blood pressure.”

So eScent could benefit mood by releasing, for example, lavender or rose to increase relaxation or jasmine and citrus to help depression. Tillotson has staged an exhibition for the Institute of Psychiatry in London, because they felt that their patients could benefit from the technology, she says.

Another application is eMos, a button-sized gadget which senses the frequency of sound made by an approaching mosquito and triggers the release of a small amount of repellent. Tillotson says that she hopes that eScent and eMos will be on the market within the next five years.

Several companies have been using similar technology to transfer scent information over the Internet. The American company TriSenx has developed the ScentDome and Australian company Air Aroma has a range of similar devices.

Just as a printer mixes primary colours, so these scent emitting devices can mix primary odours, stored as oil-based fragrances in cartridges inside the device. These cartridges can be replaced as needed. The smells are combined in a mixing chamber and then fanned out into the room through an olfactory speaker, or ‘reeker’.

ScentDome can release 20 different scents and can be used for scent-enabled websites such as ScentTv.tv, the first scent-enabled multimedia portal, available only in the U.S. at the moment.

TriSenx also provide software for adding scent to websites, but apart from a single audio CD album with an accompanying ‘scent-track’ there is still little available content to enjoy and the popularity of such devices remains low. “I think smell-o-web is an interesting idea, but like my field it needs more investment and consumer acceptance,” says Tillotson.

Areas with potential for applying such technology are the virtual reality, computer gaming and television industries, says Takamichi Nakamoto, an engineer at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. In December 2008 he demonstrated the first case of “teleofaction” at the International Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment in Yokohama, Japan.

Teleofaction allows viewers to watch TV and smell what they are watching at the same time. “The addition of smell to TV and games makes them more realistic” Takamoto explains. His odour recorder can only recognise 10 aromas, but in principle it could recognise the whole spectrum of smells. He believes that in future, technology will allow for TV to transmit smell as well as audiovisuals.

The advertising sector has already embraced digital scents. Japanese broadband company NTT Communications have been offering their “aroma-emitting digital signage” service to businesses around Japan since 2008.

The service allows businesses to enhance their adverts with custom-made scents relevant to the advertised products. Yasuko Oka, a spokesperson from NTT Communications told Cosmos Online that scent-enhanced advertising was “more effective compared to non-scent advertising: people noticed the ad more and were more interested in the products in the ads.”

Would such a service ever take off in the U.S. or Australia? Joseph Kaye thinks so. He says that most products, from foods to washing up liquids are already designed to smell in a particular way. “Clearly a lot of people think that having things smell a certain way is important, and so it seems not at all unlikely that we will move towards interactive scents in advertising.”

The mobile phone industry is also on board to profit from digitising scents. One of the winners of a 2005 Nokia competition to design a future phone was the ‘Scentsory’, a phone that “allows you to see, hear, feel and smell your caller’s environment.”

This design may not be as far off as it at first appears. Samsung and Motorola each hold a patent for smellophone technology. Motorola’s 2007 patent is for a small fragrance cartridge that uses heat from the mobile phone’s battery to release scents, and Samsung’s 2006 patent is for a perfume spraying apparatus.

But patents are often held by companies as preventative measures, to dissuade competitors from developing working solutions, says Kaye. This usually delays the development of commercial technologies, but it seems that smellophones are now being given serious thought.

Two basic models are already available for purchase. The SO703i Sony Bravia “aroma phone” comes with changeable scented sheets of nine aromas that can be combined with nine different colour panels, aimed at providing users with a therapeutic experience. Hyundai’s MP 280, “the perfume phone”, has a built-in perfume container that releases scent when the mobile is in use.

Two German companies, the Institute of Sensory Analysis and Marketing Consultancy and Convisual, announced plans in April 2008 for developing a smellophone chip card, similar to the existing SIM cards.

With this chip card and a compatible mobile phone you could send scented text and picture messages as well as smelly ringtones and games over mobile phones. Sandra Wiewiorra, spokesperson for Convisual said the company has been working on the project for the past nine years and chips with as many as 100 scents should be on the market soon.

Nakamoto says that with further developments in smell recognition technology, mobile phones could one day be used to take scented pictures and send the exact smells of your surroundings to your friends via a smell message.

“Smellophone is an idea with some future” agrees Kaye. “There is potential there, but you can only output a limited amount of smell so for the short term I think it’s going to remain a bit of a niche market.”

Perhaps one of these niche markets will be people with disabilities, says Tillotson: “Scent tones could be employed as an alternative to audio tones in mobile phones.”

Such applications could bring the world of electronic gadgets closer to the visually and hearing impaired whose ability to interact with these is currently limited.

For example, a phone could ring by releasing scent. Seungwoo Kim, an engineer at Soonchunhyang University in South Korea is working on a smart mobile phone that “has 12 micro-nozzles to emit just the right odour to identify the caller”.

His phone has an olfactory module designed to mix fragrances depending on the caller’s identity so each person in your phone book could have a different fragrance ID.

Perhaps the future will be more scented than we think. Be it wearable interactive scents for fashion, addition of olfaction to entertainment and communication or personalised technology aimed at improving the quality of people’s lives, digital scents seem set to enrich our lives.

Mico Tatalovic is a science writer based in London, England.
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