Apps that can communicate touch, taste and smell: A taste of what’s to come

Rhodri Marsden wonders if it’s more than people can stomach

Websites and apps are frequently described by their creators as offering a “rich experience”. The beautiful designs, intuitive layouts and compelling interactivity may well be engaging and satisfying to use, but when they’re hailed as being a “feast for the senses”, it’s evident that they’re a feast for merely two.

Online entertainment is about sight and sound; everything is mediated through a glass panel and a speaker, leaving us well short of being immersed in an alternative reality. But with studies having demonstrated that more than half of human communication is non-verbal, scientists have been working on ways of communicating touch, taste and smell via the internet, and many of those experiments have been gathering pace.

“What do you smell?” asks Adrian Cheok, professor of pervasive computing at City University London. The whiff of melon is unmistakable; it emerged from a tiny device clipped to an iPhone and was triggered by Cheok standing on the other side of the room. “Right,” he says. “These devices have been commercialised in Japan – they’re selling 10,000 units a month – and they’re bringing smells into a social interface.” It’s still early days with this technology; the device I’m holding is similar to an inkjet printer in that it contains a melon “smell sachet”, and when it’s empty you have to buy another one. Nor is it a particularly new concept; in 1999, Wired magazine ran a front cover story about a company called Digiscents that had produced a USB “personal scent synthesiser” for your computer called the iSmell. Digiscents folded two years later. But the technology that failed to excite us back then now looks slightly less gimmicky in the context of modern smartphone usage, with its super- connectivity and emoticons galore.

On the surface, Cheok’s projects are fun, almost throwaway. “I’ve worked on hugging pyjamas,” he says. “They consist of a suit you can put on your body to virtually hug someone, remotely. Then we have these small haptic rings; if I squeeze my ring someone else will feel a squeeze on theirs through the internet – like a remote sensation of hand-holding.” He’s also been working on a device with electrodes that excites taste receptors on the tongue,  producing an artificial sensation of taste in the brain. Similar work is also under way at the National University of Singapore, where a team of researchers is constructing a “digital  lollipop” that fools the tongue into experiencing sweet, salt, sour or bitter tastes.

Adrian Cheok demonstrates one of his creations (© Jonathan Shkurko) Adrian Cheok demonstrates one of his creations (© Jonathan Shkurko)  

In the shorter term, the applications of these devices seem slightly frivolous; Cheok’s rings, for example, are being turned into a product that the music industry plans to sell to fans. “You go to the concert,” he says, “the pop star would send a special message, and if you’re wearing the ring you’d get a squeeze on your finger.” I grimace slightly, and he laughs.

“Fortunately or unfortunately,” he says, “that’s where they’ve decided that the money is – but we need to explore the boundaries of how these things can be used, because scientists and inventors can’t think of all the possibilities. For example, Thomson Reuters has been in touch to ask about using the rings to send  tactile information about stock prices or  currency movements.”

Our transition to an internet of all the senses is evidently dependent on the breadth of information that can be conveyed from one person to another as a series of zeroes and ones. “You have to find a way of, say, transmitting smell digitally, without using a sachet,” says Cheok.

“So I’m working with a French neuroscientist, Olivier Oullier, on a device which can produce an artificial sensation of smell through magnetic actuation. The olfactory bulb in our nasal cavity that’s responsible for smell can be stimulated by pulsing magnetic fields. So this is about directly exciting the brain’s neural path by bypassing the external sensor – in this case the human body.”

This immediately plunges us into what seems like incredibly futuristic territory, where brains are communicating sensory information directly with other brains across digital networks. But it’s already been demonstrated by the synthetic neurobiology group at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) that optical fibre can be connected to neurons, and Cheok is excited about where this may lead in the relatively short term. “We will have direct connection to the brain within our lifetime,” he says, “although what level that will be I’m not sure. Physical stimulation of neurons may not produce the effects that we would hope for and predict.”

Few of us can conceive of the pace with which technological power is developing. Ray Kurzweil (author, futurist, and a director of engineering at Google) predicts that by 2025 we’ll have a computer which has the processing power of the human brain, and by 2045 it’ll have the processing power of six billion brains – ie, everyone on the planet. Cheok sees these as hugely important tipping points for society.  “If you’re able to download your brain to a computer, there are major philosophical questions that we’ll have to deal with in the next 30 years, such as whether we’re human, or whether we’re computers.”

Society will also have to work out how it’s going to handle the hyper-connectivity of a multisensory internet – bearing in mind that we can already become deeply frustrated by the few kilobytes of information contained within the average overloaded email inbox. Text messages that are not replied to already provoke consternation – what about unreciprocated touches, provocative odours or unwanted tastes?

“Our brains haven’t changed to cope with infinite communication,” says Cheok. “We don’t have a mechanism for knowing when there’s too much, in the way that we do when we’ve eaten too much food. Communication is not just a desire, it’s a basic need – but we’ve gone from being hunter-gatherers in groups of 20 or 30 to being in a world of infinite data. We could literally gorge on communication and be unable to stop. We’ll have to find new norms and new mechanisms, but it’s difficult to  predict what they will be.”

Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian philosopher of communication theory, famously used the term “global village” to describe the effect of connected media upon the world’s population; it has become overused, but Cheok believes that new sensory-communication channels will demonstrate how prescient that prediction was. “For most of human history, we didn’t have privacy,” he says. “Everyone knew who was doing what. And these developments will mean that we become more and more open – the end of secrecy, almost bringing us back to the way that life used to be in hunter-gatherer times. Except, of course, it’s now global. A lot more people will know.”

The implications of the work of Cheok and his contemporaries seem to sit midway between exciting and terrifying, but in the shorter term it’s about focusing on relatively mundane objectives, such as emitting multiple odours from a smartphone. “People will get used to this new mode of communication,” says Cheok, “and develop new languages. We don’t yet have a language of smell, or of touch; exactly the same pressure in terms of a touch can have a  completely different response in the brain, depending on context. But combined with emotion and the subconscious, it’ll bring a heightened sense of presence. I want us to be able to eat together across the internet. I’ve no idea what that will feel like,” he adds, smiling, “but I’ve always believed that human communication goes far beyond the logical.”

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
people
Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

Arts and Entertainment
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Travel
travel
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant - SThree Group - Bristol

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: SThree Group has been...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Real Staffing - Leeds - £18k+

    £18000 - £27000 per annum + Commission: SThree: The SThree group is a world le...

    Senior Automation Tester – Permanent – West Sussex – Circa £40k

    £35000 - £40000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultants

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

    Day In a Page

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes