Future video chats might even transmit smells: See how
Written ByShubham Sharma – 27 Nov 2018
Modern-day internet messaging platforms (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger et al) have re-defined end-to-end conversations.
You can call a friend anytime to see what they are doing or where they are.
But, in order to make these conversations even more immersive, a group of scientists is exploring the possibility of transmitting smell via chats. Yep, SMELL!
Here’s how that could be a reality.
How smell could be transmitted on chat?
At present, no technology allows us to convey smell on internet-based chats.
However, in recent experiments, scientists were able to trigger different smell senses electrically, something that suggests a system like that might be a reality in the future.
They have envisioned a nose-like device that would sense odors and transmit them digitally to the receiver, along with sights and sounds, NBC News reported.
Here’s how they electrically triggered a sense smell
A sense of smell is created when air molecules enter the nose and trigger specialized nerve cells, which deliver sensory impulses to the brain.
The scientists used the same technique, but instead of using air, they employed weak electrical currents to trigger these neurons.
They placed electrodes in the nostrils of 31 test subjects to deliver currents where the neurons are found.
The subjects sensed different odors, but with no control
The resulting, electrically triggered impulses, led the subjects to smell virtual creations of 10 different odors, including fruity, minty, and woody.
Though they were not able to control which odor the subjects experienced, the team thinks the tech could be advanced to create a digital smell tech, where odors transmitted from that nose-like device would be received with some sort of glasses or goggles.
‘Digital smell’ technology could let us transmit odors in online chats
“It’s not just about the smell. It is part of a whole, integrated virtual reality or augmented reality.”
Having a video chat with a friend or colleague is all about seeing and hearing — at least for now. But experiments conducted recently in Malaysia suggest it may be possible to develop “electric smell” technology capable of conveying odors as well as sights and sounds.
The research is preliminary and not without its critics. But if electric smell pans out, long-distance conversations could one day be far more immersive — enabling you to share with a loved one the aroma of a meal you just prepared, for example, or letting you catch a whiff of the sea from your sister’s beach vacation.
“It’s not just about the smell,” said Adrian Cheok, one of the scientists behind the experiments. “It is part of a whole, integrated virtual reality or augmented reality. So, for example, you could have a virtual dinner with your friend through the internet. You can see them in 3D and also share a glass of wine together.”
EVOKING VIRTUAL ODORS
In real life, odors are transmitted when airborne molecules waft into the nose, prompting specialized nerve cells in the upper airway to fire off impulses to the brain. In the recent experiments, performed on 31 test subjects at the Imagineering Institute in the Malaysian city of Nusajaya, researchers used electrodes in the nostrils to deliver weak electrical currents above and behind the nostrils, where these neurons are found.
The researchers were able to evoke 10 different virtual odors, including fruity, woody and minty.
The scientists couldn’t control which odors the subjects experienced, and they’re under no illusion that people will want to stick wires up their nostrils each time they have a video chat.
But Cheok, who is also the institute’s director as well as a professor at the City University of London, foresees a day when odors might be sensed by a sort of electronic nose (similar devices are now used in food-processing plants), sent in digital form over the internet and delivered to the recipient not via wires in the nose but via electrode-studded glasses or goggles.
“This stage was more exploratory,” Cheok said of the research. “The next stage is to produce it in a more controlled manner, and this will allow for people to develop software and products to generate electric smell.”
Electric smell technology could find applications beyond entertainment and personal communications. If it does prove feasible, it might be used to restore a sense of smell in people who have lost it as a result of illness, injury or inborn abnormality, 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 everybody,” Mainland said.
A FLAWED STUDY?
Mainland added that it should be at least theoretically possible to evoke specific odors via 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 to deaf people. “It’s not a natural stimulation,” he said of cochlear implants. “It seems like it shouldn’t work.”
It’s possible a smell-restoring device could function in a similar manner, he said. “If you start playing something that is correlated to smells that are coming in, people’s brains will be able to decode what is going on.”
But Mainland is critical of the Malaysian study, saying it’s possible that the smells the subjects reported may not have been produced by electricity. “I can give you an empty jar to sniff when you don’t have anything up your nose, and sometimes you would report a faint odor,” he said in an email. “If you are asking someone if something smells, they have a strong bias to say yes even where there is no odor.”
The study failed to account for this possibility, he said.
What would inspire someone to painstakingly craft an inch-and-a-half-long burrito using dental tools? A hamster, of course. In the viral YouTube video “Tiny Hamster Eating Tiny Burritos,” a man prepares a chicken and single black bean burrito, then serves it to the rodent waiting at a jam-jar table. The diner pulls the burrito off a poker-chip plate and stuffs the entire thing into its mouth, cheeks puffed as if in satisfaction. It’s amazing.
Videos like this are shared all over the internet, with miniature birthday celebrations, romantic dates, and tiki parties starring cherubic animals in unlikely situations. The clips have accumulated millions of views. So why do we find these tiny tableaus so satisfying? In part, it’s because we’re engineered to appreciate the smaller things in life.
The protagonist is typically a small animal with a big head and big eyes, features collectively known as “baby schema”—a phrase coined in a 1943 paper by Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz. Human infants are the prototypical embodiment of baby schema. Because our babies are so helpless, Lorenz proposed, we evolved to find these characteristics cute so we’ll instinctually want to take care of them. This response helps our species survive. In fact, the power of baby schema is so strong, we’re even attracted to other beings with these traits.
“We’re not robots or computers,” says Adrian David Cheok, director of the Imagineering Institute in Malaysia, who has studied Kawaii, a culture prevalent in Japan that celebrates the adorable side of life. “Not only do we find other people’s children cute, we also find other animals cute, like puppies or kittens, because they have similar features to human babies.”
Research bears this out. Dozens of studies show that the smaller and more stereotypically “baby” a human or animal looks, the more we want to protect it. One investigation found that seeing pictures of baby animals makes us smile, while another discovered that photos of human infants trigger the nucleus accumbens, a brain region implicated in the anticipation of a reward. There’s even evidence that cute things help us concentrate and perform tasks better, theoretically because they sharpen the focus of our attention on the recipients of our care.
Our response to baby schema is so strong that it also spills out toward inanimate objects. In a 2011 study, researchers tweaked images of cars to make them embody the baby schema, with huge headlights and smaller grilles to reflect infants’ big eyes and small noses. College students smiled more at pictures of the baby-faced autos, finding them more appealing than the unaltered versions.
Mimicking chubby-cheeked critters to make goods more attractive might help sell cars, but not all little creatures have features manufacturers should imitate. Some small animals don’t exactly inspire our cuddle reflex—who wants to caress a cockroach? That’s partly because these beasties display traits (bitty heads, large bodies, and beady eyes) that don’t fit the baby schema. Sure, some people have a soft spot for “ugly cute” animals, including some species of spiders, but these still fall on Lorenz’s spectrum with big, bright peepers.
What about the things we squee over that don’t have eyes at all? Think of that darling burrito. What it lacks in a face, it makes up for in sheer artistry. “When you’re looking at [things] and seeing them as cute because they’re small, you’re also seeing them as cute because they’re cleverly made,” says Joshua Paul Dale, a faculty member at Tokyo Gakugei University and co-editor of the book The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness.
It makes sense then that the original meaning of “cute” was “clever or shrewd.” Simply put, we appreciate the craftsmanship of small things—it’s more difficult to make a burrito the size of a thumb than one as big as your forearm. A man examining his finished creation for flaws with a dentist’s mirror definitely meets that innovative criteria.
These tiny, carefully made items may also bring us joy because they make us want to play. Psychologists Gary Sherman and Jonathan Haidt theorize that cuteness triggers not just a protective impulse, but also a childlike response that encourages fun. To them, the desire to engage with cute things stems from our need to socialize children through play—an urge we transfer to adorable objects.
Craftsmanship and playfulness definitely factor in to why we find pint-size things so charming, but don’t discount the huge impact of their petite proportions. Miniature scenes make us feel powerful as viewers. Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss suggests in The Savage Mind that we derive satisfaction from minuscule objects because we can see and comprehend them in their entirety, which makes them less threatening. Essentially, tiny towns, toy soldiers, and miniature tea sets make us feel like gods…or Godzillas.
That power, of course, is all in your head. The reason you smile as you build a ship in a bottle or watch videos like “Tiny Birthday for a Tiny Hedgehog” (Look it up. You’re welcome.) is that your brain is taking in the sight of that carefully frosted cake and small spiky body topped with a party hat and sending you mental rewards, causing you to feel formidable, focused, happy, and capable of keeping the weak and vulnerable alive. Yes, it means we are easily dominated by diminutive things, but so what? They’re adorable.
You can’t smell the food in that review you’re reading on Yelp, but one day you might be able to.
Researchers at the Imagineering Institute in Malaysia are working on creating “digital smell.” One day they want users to be able to smell what they’re seeing when they use their digital devices. Right now, though, the process involves putting a cable up the user’s nose in order to stimulate certain neurons in the nasal passage.
In order to get people to think they were smelling something, the research team needed to deliver electric currents to the olfactory epithelium cells about 7 centimeters above and behind the nostrils. Most of the volunteers reported fragrant or chemical smells, although some also reported fruity, sweet, toasted minty, and woody odors.
The next step is to find a less invasive way to administer the electricity, such as a much smaller cable or by skipping the nose entirely and stimulating the brain instead.