The World Cup for robots

The smell-o-vision iPod

I love it: Some engineers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan are developing a device that you can point at a smell to record a sample of it — then “play” it back later on. As the New Scientist reports:

Somboon’s system will use 15 chemical-sensing microchips, or electronic noses, to pick up a broad range of aromas. These are then used to create a digital recipe from a set of 96 chemicals that can be chosen according to the purpose of each individual gadget. When you want to replay a smell, drops from the relevant vials are mixed, heated and vaporised. In tests so far, the system has successfully recorded and reproduced the smell of orange, lemon, apple, banana and melon. “We can even tell a green apple from a red apple,” Somboon says.

This thing might actually work. The lab’s web site is down, but Google’s cached copy of their experiment page shows that they do seem to be having some success with “recording and reproducing citrus flavors”.

Nonetheless, I can’t stop giggling. There is no technology more justly mocked than Smell-O-Vision. Yet in a weird may, maybe there’s actually a use for an olfactory iPod. Smell is powerfully related to memory, so one might wonder whether this device could actually be useful as a memory aid: When you’re trying to remember the details of a situation, you record its smell, and then play it back later as a cognitive priming device.

Then again, when smells are removed from their context they can be kind of creepy. I recently visited a lab where they develop artificial flavors — extracting the essence of the flavor and smell of, say, buttered popcorn, or bacon, or a hamburger. And let me tell you, when you hold up a tiny stick with a dab of hamburger scent on it and your nose is overwhelmed by the smell of an actual, real burger, it’s strangely unsettling: It feels less like the wonderful odor of a burger joint and more like you’re experiencing a psychotic break.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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