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Texting Smells: A Future Possibility

Before the advent of a cellphone in every pocket, people from past decades dreamed of video chats. Video chats are old news in 2018, however. Most people Face Time, Skype, Snapchat, utilize Facebook Messenger, or one of several other applications allowing just that. During these video chats, though, how many times have you wondered what the person on the other end smells like? Whether that answer is yes or no, technology is heading in that direction.

Experiments recently conducted in Malaysia have suggested the possibility of developing “electric smell” technology is very real, and could be done soon. A 2011 experiment conducted by researchers at the University of California in San Diego concluded thousands of orders could be created “at will” from a device small enough to be placed on a television or phone.

The purpose of creating the oft-pondered “Smell-O-Vision” would be to fully immerse oneself into augmented reality. If an app can generate a smell, that smell could add to the experience of virtual reality (VR). It could also feasibly allow people to transmit an odor in the case of an emergency, such as a gas leak.

During the 2011 creation of the small box of smells, the device consisted of thousands of scents in solutions emitting odors when heated by a thin metal wire. With 100 such scents, the machine could generate upwards of 10,000 different odors.

Transmitting those odors is a different process. When the human body senses a smell, it occurs when airborne molecules are brought into the nose. Once inside, specialized nerve cells alert the brain to the odor. In the Malaysia experiments, researchers at the Imagineering Institute in Nusajaya were able to deliver these impulses through electrodes places in the nostrils of 31 test subjects. As many as 10 different odors, including wood and mint, were experienced by test subjects.

Mint was one of the scents subjects reported smelling with the electrode-induced smell tests

When the technology reaches consumers, however, they will not be expected to shove electrodes up their nose each time they are on the phone. Instead, researchers believe people will be wearing special goggles outfitted with an electric nose (it is real and used to test quality of products in the food industry).

Critiques of the study said subjects had an inclination to respond affirmatively when asked if they smelled something. Another stated the amount of impulses sent by one electrode in the nostril could not hope to match the huge amount of receptors activated by actual sniffing.

If put into the market, this technology would not be the first attempt to make media more immersive through smell. In 1960, Mike Todd, Jr., created the first Smell-o-Vision system, which piped scents it generated through vents in movie theaters across America. It was listed as number 47 in Time Magazine’s 50 worst inventions. The only film using it was Scent of Mystery – a film created just to showcase the Smell-0-Vision. It was never used again after that film’s disastrous screening.