In late January, Professor Cheok took his department's technology to the Madrid Fusion culinary festival in Spain, where he unveiled a mobile device and app combination - Scentee - which is capable of emitting food flavors.
"Smell, taste and touch are important means of communication," Cheok explains. "As we move beyond the 'information age' to an era of sharing experiences, what we want to do is give others more of a sense of 'being there'."
That means being able to smell the coffee, taste the ice-cream, and feel the touch of another person. Cheok's innovations include 'huggable pajamas', "so parents/grandparents and kids can feel each other's presence from opposite sides of the world via the Internet," he explains. A more practical, scaled-down version of this is a wearable ring - RingU - that can remotely transmit a squeeze to a loved one's hand (via a Bluetooth 4.0 connection to a smartphone). "Touch is so important for communication, and for times when you can't take a call, receiving a reassuring squeeze via the fingers can mean a lot." Remote 'kissing' applications are further areas of exploration.
Taste and smell, meanwhile, are important because they are attached to the limbic system and associated parts of the brain that are responsible for emotion, mood and memory. The ability to simulate these sensory experiences at distance has great potential in all sorts of applications, from in-store advertising to the use of smell as a memory trigger.
At this stage the technology is pretty crude, but should be refined in future iterations, once the mechanics have been perfected.
In a taste scenario, a device with electrodes is used to stimulate taste neurons and taste sensations on the tongue, activated by digitized information sent over the Internet. Smell, which continues to be a work in progress, is the subject of similar projects, this time applying magnetic fields to the back of the mouth to stimulate the olfactory receptor, again without chemicals. In the case of Scentee, the smelling device is a bit like an inkjet printer, containing sachets of scents, triggered by a smartphone app.
Cheok sees potential for a fuller sensory experience in TV, cinema and art as well as 'emotional' advertising, medical applications, and remote interpersonal communications.
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