Friday, June 24, 2011

Incorporating Smell Into the Entertainment Experience

What if while watching The Bachelorette, you could actually smell the roses that Ashley was handing out, or while watching The Food Network, you could smell the fresh herbs and spices in all of the delicious dishes that Paula Deen was cooking up? Well, we may not be far away from the days when smell will be incorporated into our TV viewing experiences.

Scientists at the University of California San Diego have partnered with Samsung and are hard at work developing technology that would incorporate scent into the entertainment experience. This technology is leaps and bounds ahead of the entertainment industry’s first attempt to incorporate scent with movies. “Smell-O-Vision” was the name that was given to the techniques that were introduced in the 50’s and 60’s. Obviously, they weren’t very successful. The latest technology seems incredibly sophisticated. Scientists have been said to be able to create over 10,000 different aromas from a relatively compact device.

"That's the hypothetical number," said Sungho Jin, a professor of NanoEngineering at UC San Diego and the leader of the research team. "It's a matter of programming. All the odors would be pre-programmed, like sound is synchronized with the image. So there are a lot of possibilities."

Jin does warn that everything that his team has developed to this point is merely a proof of concept, so don’t get too excited yet; however, it seems as though they are making lots of progress with the technology.

So how does it work, some might ask? Well, the device stores a liquid solution in several different tiny compartments. When it is time for a smell to be released, those compartments can be heated via a metal wire. Once heated, the solution becomes gaseous. The pressure that builds then opens a small compressed hole found within the compartment and the gas is released in the room to give off the scent correlating to what is occurring in the movie or TV show.

The breakthrough that was discovered by the team at UC San Diego was the mapping of the odors on an x-y matrix. This helps to greatly minimize the complexity of the system itself. Without this discovery, any device that featured the scent technology would literally require thousands of individual controllers to create the different aromas. The matrix that the team discovered allows the device to be small enough to fit into a cell phone.

"If you want to do 10,000 odors with 10,000 switches, that's a very complicated device. But if you have an x-y matrix system, that device is more practical. It's not a problem doing 100x100 on a 50-inch TV. Each chamber would be millimeter size. On a cell phone, you may not be able to do 10,000 odors. Maybe 100."

Jin continues explaining the possibilities with this technology. “For example, if people are eating pizza, the viewer smells pizza coming from a TV or cell phone, and if a beautiful lady walks by, they smell perfume, instantaneously generated fragrances or odors would match the scene shown on a TV or cell phone, and that's the idea."

Although all of the advances with scented television experiences have been great, there are still some major issues that researchers need to address. The biggest issue right now seems to surround the limitations with how far a smell can travel. Smell travels at a much slower rate than say the light or sound on a TV, so what can be done to speed it up? Jin does not seem to be too concerned. "You can tell if somebody farts, you can smell it in three or four seconds,” he said “And that's like a two to three feet distance. For 10 feet, if you have a miniature fan, it can get to you in a few seconds or so. We keep thinking about the issues."

Jin said that smell-enabled TVs are likely years from being available to the general public, if they ever even show up. However, he believes that it is a field that has most definitely been underutilized and could make a huge impact if it is properly developed.

"Smell is one of the most important senses that we have. [With devices,] we use eyesight and hearing often. Touching is a little more difficult, and tasting would have safety issues. Smell is next."

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