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By Wynne Parry
Having a video chat with a friend or colleague is all about seeing and hearing – at least for now. However, recent experiments in Malaysia suggest that it may be possible to develop an "electric odor" technology capable of transmitting odors as well as images and sounds.
The research is preliminary and not without its critics. But if the electrical smells dissipated, the remote conversations could one day become much more immersive: you will be able to share with a loved one the aroma of a meal that you have just prepared, for example, or you allow you to take a whiff of sea since your vacation at sister beach.
"It's not just the smell," said Adrian Cheok, one of the scientists behind the experiments. "It's part of a virtual reality or an integrated augmented reality. So, for example, you can organize a virtual dinner with your friend via the Internet. You can see them in 3D and share a glass of wine together. "
Evocation of virtual smells
In reality, odors are transmitted when airborne molecules enter the nose, causing specialized nerve cells in the upper airway to emit impulses to the brain. In recent experiments, conducted on 31 test subjects at the Imagineering Institute of the Malaysian city of Nusajaya, researchers used electrodes in the nostrils to deliver weak electrical currents above and behind the nostrils, where find these neurons.
The researchers were able to evoke 10 different virtual smells, notably fruity, woody and mentholated.
Scientists can not control the smells felt by subjects. They do not fear that people will want to stick wires every time they chat on video.
Cheok, who is also director of the institute and professor at the City University of London, is planning a day when smells could be detected by some kind of electronic nose (similar devices are now used in food processing plants ). in digital form on the Internet and delivered to the addressee, not by wires in the nose, but by glasses or glasses with electrodes.
"This step was more exploratory," Cheok said of the research. "The next step is to produce it in a more controlled manner, which will allow users to develop software and products that generate an electrical odor."
Cheok said it may be decades before the types of devices he envisions are ready to be used. But he thinks that devices that transmit pre-programmed smells for entertainment applications – for example, to give moviegoers the generic smell of burnt rubber while they watch a car chase in an action movie – might be available earlier, maybe in 15 years.
Electric odor technology may find applications other than entertainment and personal communications. If this proves feasible, it could be used to restore the sense of smell in people who had lost it as a result of illness, injury or death. an innate anomaly, said Joel Mainland, an olfactory neuroscientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.
"I think there are medical implications for a certain class of people who have lost their sense of smell, but not for everyone," Mainland said.
An imperfect study?
Mainland added that it should be at least theoretically possible to evoke specific odors by electrical stimulation. He compared this approach to cochlear implants, which electrically stimulate the nerve that carries sound signals to the brain to restore limited hearing for deaf people. "It's not natural stimulation," he said of cochlear implants. "It seems like it should not work."
It's possible that an anti-odor device works in a similar way, he said. "If you start playing something that correlates with the smells that come in, people's brains will be able to decode what's going on."
Mainland criticizes the Malaysian study, saying it is possible that the odors reported by the reported subjects were not produced by electricity. "I can give you an empty pot to sniff when nothing gets in your face and sometimes you get a slight smell," he said in an email. "If you ask someone if something feels, he has a strong bias to say yes, even if there's no smell."
The study did not consider this possibility, he said.
Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford in England, concurred with this view and criticized the idea of an electrical odor in general. He said the sense of smell was too complex and misunderstood for anyone to know how to stimulate it artificially.
"Any smell every day will probably activate dozens, if not hundreds, of receivers," he said in an email. "If you only have one electrode in your nose, regardless of the frequency rate or intensity (of the electric current you use), you will not be able to stimulate enough receptors to deliver a (perception)."
The long history of often badly received attempts to add a smell to movies, video games and even smartphones adds to the doubts.
In 1959, the cinemas experiment and quickly abandon AromaRama, a system that diffuses odors in the air vents of the ceiling. in 1960, a similar system called Smell-O-Vision was not adopted. In 2010, Time magazine ranked Smell-O-Vision among the 50 worst inventions of all time.
More recently, a small device the size of a cup of coffee, presented as a digital fragrance speaker, was created to emit custom smells from a smartphone application. But a critic called the device, Cyrano, a "glorified high-tech equivalent of an air freshener or candle".
Similarly, the Feelreal mask, designed to release odor molecules from cartridges in the nose during virtual reality games, was designed as "an instrument of torture".
But Cheok thinks that these systems and devices share an essential limitation: they rely on odorous molecules, which remain long after their use, which creates confusing or undesirable odors.
"Let's say you're watching a movie and then you see a scene from [a] car chase and you have the smell of smoke, "he said. The problem is that when you go to the next scene, you do not want to smell the smoke anymore. If we can electrify the odors, technically we can reduce the constant time, we can reduce the time needed to stop the smell and move on to a different smell. "
What about previous research on electrical stimulation of odors? A study conducted in France in 1973 resulted in odors such as vanilla, almonds and a burning smell. But subsequent efforts to corroborate these results, including that of Israeli researchers in 2016, have failed.
Kasun Karunanayaka, a researcher at the Imagineering Institute, said in an e-mail that he was aware of the limits of the new research.
"Let's hope we can improve the results," he said. Future research, to be undertaken with a specialist in odor disorders at the Technische Universität Dresden in Germany, will continue to test the electrical stimulation of odors and to use brain scans to compare the reaction of study subjects to real and electrically stimulated odors.
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