Scientists are working on ways that websites and apps can communicate touch, taste and smell. But, wonders Rhodri Marsden, will a hyper-connective multisensory internet be more than we 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.
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.”
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; 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.”
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.”
After a very surreal chat with a professor at City University London, I was filled in on the concept of multi-sensory human communication. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but Adrian David Cheok, professor of pervasive computing at City University, explained that in the future, the internet will allow communication that goes beyond just vision and hearing. He thinks that in the future we’ll go from sharing data to sharing “experience”.
After our chat, I felt full of hope about what the future would hold. A lot of companies now expect employees to travel abroad, and everyone knows the strain that can have on families and individuals when they can’t properly communicate with those at home. But what if we could taste, smell, hug and kiss via the internet? Professor Cheok explained that 60% of human communication is non-verbal, so although long-distance communication has come a long way, it still doesn’t suffice. Here are some of his ideas and projects for interactive technology in the future:
Sometimes you might have to go for a conference and your partner is at home, in another country, or in another time zone. You have a wandering thought about them and you wished they knew they were on your mind. The RingU was invented for this purpose, a device that allows users to send ‘bi-directional’ visual and physical messages to another paired ring. You can send vibrations and colours to represent your mood and thoughts. It’s not quite the same as being there in person or a phone call, but sometimes you want to send a quick gesture just to let someone know you’re thinking of them. It could even be used in business environments, for example there has been interest in the ring from financial firms who think it would be useful to help traders to receive real-time updates on the stock exchange. The ring could vibrate to inform them of a movement in the stocks they follow.
A lot of current scientific research surrounding taste involves using a mixture of chemicals to produce different taste sensations. Professor Cheok has created a device that uses electrical signals sent to the tongue to manipulate the brain into thinking it can taste certain things. The hope for this is that in the future, taste could be digitised so that people could share what they are eating via the internet. It could also be attached to eating utensils to change the way things taste as you eat them. Imagine eating a virtual lollipop; all the taste and no calories. This research is also linked with directly manipulating sensors in the brain to produce the sensation of taste or smell, similar to a technique already being used to treat depression.
Surprisingly this is something that is currently being produced, and is called ChatPerf. There’s a small device that plugs into your smartphone which can then emit a smell through a mixture of chemicals. If you wanted to share a food smell with someone, you could text it to them. You could sync it with your alarm clock to spray a coffee smell to get you going in the morning. There has even been the idea that you could use it to help you power through a diet, as smell and taste are so closely associated; you can spray the smell of beef to make your salad taste better. It could also be used for healthcare, using familiar smells to trigger memories for elderly patients, reminding them to do things such as take medication. Or it could be used in marketing to promote products such as fabric softener or deodorant.
Cheok is currently working on a ‘bi-directional kiss messenger’ to simulate kissing via the internet. If you’re away from home for a long time, maybe you’re a jet setter, you can use these devices to call home and maybe even get a little kiss from your partner. You each plug the device into your smartphone, and the silicone pads simulate the movement of your partner’s mouth and lips.
Travelling for work can be really difficult, especially if you have kids (or cats) at home who don’t fully understand why you have to be away so often. A prototype device allowed a person to touch sensors on a doll which then transferred the pressure to a jacket on their pet. To widen this interaction to human communication, a ‘hugging pyjama’ was invented to allow the same interaction to take place between a parent and their child over long distance. This device allows you to hug someone at home from wherever you are in the world. Using pressure sensors, the jacket can apply pressure to the body in reaction to where you touch, giving the illusion that you are hugging them.
With businesses struggling to fill job posts and thousands of computer science graduates out of work, universities could play a critical role in averting an IT skills crisis by ensuring the UK is self-sufficient in IT professionals.
“In the UK, just learning the basics of programming is not enough because it has become a commoditised industry. There are hundreds of thousands of graduates in India and China who are really good at programming, so a lot of these things can be outsourced,” he said.
“Graduates in the UK cannot just rely on the technical skills of programming. They have to become much more focused on the networking and business skills required to succeed,” said Cheok.
He said all jobs require human skills and computer scientists must use their people networks: “Every job, no matter what industry, is very much human focused – it is people who control entry to a job, control promotion, control opportunities; computers don’t hire people.
“So it is really critical for people to realise that one of the best ways to improve your career is to leverage your network. Your human network is critical, so when students are at university, it’s essential they build up a network and expand it.
“Almost all opportunities that come about are through people.”
Cheok said universities play an important role and need to change: “Universities must adapt to this too, with courses such as business and computing. Pure computer science is okay if you want to be a researcher or academic. Just knowing how to program in Java and C is no good because anyone can.”