Universities Week 2014: Text a hug or send a smell



By Ellie Buchdahl9 June 2014

Nothing says ‘welcome home’ like the warm smell of freshly baked bread, does it? And nothing says ‘I love you’ better than a big, tight squeeze from a friend.

So wouldn’t it be great to be able to send hugs and scented wishes across the world as easily as a phone call, a text message or an email?

Thanks to work involving students at City University in London, now you can.

Visitors to the Multi-Sensory Internet stand at the Natural History Museum during Universities Week will be able to try on a ring that gives them a ‘remote hug’, get a shot of flavour from a ‘digital lollipop’, or sniff a ‘Scentee’ device – a phone that transmits smells including strawberry, lavender and coffee.

Want a hug? Professor Adrian David Cheok demonstrates the RingU device that sends virtual cuddles

Academic, apprentice and entrepreneur

Jordan Tewell, from Ohio in the USA, is on a team of international and UK students working with entrepreneur Adrian David Cheok, Professor of Pervasive Computing at City University, to create these ‘sense-sending’ devices.

Jordan’s PhD in Computer Science sounds more like a full-blown apprenticeship in entrepreneurism and networking than a programming project.

‘My day-to-day work really depends on Adrian’s schedule,’ Jordan says.


‘Usually we’ll run some tests, experiments or demonstrations in the lab, but we have regular outings to events at The Hangout, which is a space set up between the university and local entrepreneurs from London’s Tech City to let students learn entrepreneurship skills and give them a chance to attract investment in their ideas.

‘I also go along with Adrian to companies to make professional pitches for products he’s marketing.

‘We recently took the Scentee to a major multinational consumer products company, and they’re going to use it in a promotional campaign for antiperspirant.’

Professor Cheok and his gadgets are well known in the advertising world.

He has worked with the Michelin-starred restaurant Mugaritz in Spain to develop a mobile app that recreates some of chef Andoni Luis Aduriz’s top dishes. He also worked with a Japanese company to produce a campaign in the USA with meat manufacturer Oscar Mayer, developing a mobile phone ‘alarm clock’ that wakes people with the smell and sound of bacon cooking via the Scentee.

But the input of the PhD students at City is invaluable to his work.

‘My background was computer science,’ says Jordan. ‘Adrian is a real gadget guru, but I’ve brought in my skill set in programming.’

International experience

‘One of the best things about doing this project is working with an interdisciplinary team,’ Jordan adds.

‘There are businessmen, designers in other technical areas, programmers – and it’s incredibly international, too, which was another reason why I wanted to come to the UK.’

One of Jordan’s jobs is to convert the engineer’s perspective of technical drawings and product requirements into simpler picture guides.

These are used by designers based in Japan, and Jordan’s task involves negotiating a language barrier.

‘It’s one of the realities of the industry, and I’m now used to boiling down every nook and cranny of what I do into a format that someone who doesn’t speak excellent English can understand,’ he says. ‘It’s prepared me for anything down the road.’

So how do these virtual tastes actually work?

It’s all down to chemicals and currents, apparently.

The Scentee is loaded with reservoirs of alcohol-based solutions that mimic ‘coffee’ or ‘roses’, for example, but that linger longer than the ‘real’ smells would.

Sweet science: A taste radio with silver electrodes that go into the mouth to stimulate certain taste sensations on the tongue

Other devices, such as a taste radio, have an apparatus that can be placed in the mouth to stimulate sweet or salt-detecting neurons on the tongue using harmless bursts of electricity.

The research that underpins these devices could have practical medical applications as well as commercial ones, such as ‘recreating’ taste for people with mouth or tongue disorders, or inducing sweet tastes for people with diabetes.

With studies showing that taste and memory are intrinsically linked, there is also potential for memory-aiding devices that go beyond the verbal and visual – to prompt people with Alzheimer’s disease to take medication, for example.

‘This is creating a whole language of taste that can be used in a scientific way, and it’s opening up a completely new area of molecular gastronomy,’ Jordan says. ‘We could even create tastes that you wouldn’t experience in the real world.

‘We are working on cutting-edge stuff here, and in a couple of years we could be building businesses out of it,’ Jordan adds.

‘This is a great opportunity – and a real chance to network and show the world what we’ve created.’

Gastronomy guinea pig: Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal puts one of the devices through its paces


Sending smells by text and other things you didn’t know about UK research


University researchers tell us about their groundbreaking research – and why they want the public to know about it

Over 250 events took place in UK universities last week to celebrateUniversities Week – a five-day festivity where researchers leave the labs to share their work with the public. Now in its fourth year, the main event – and the biggest yet – took place at the Natural History Museum.

• As we launch our new hub on the Impact of Research, I speak to some of the researchers involved about why the public should be interested in their work.

•The vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey and head of Universities UK outline the challenges faced by researchers and their focus for the future.

City University staff modelling the Scentee app, ‘digital lollypop’…and some lemons. Photograph: City University


Adrian David Cheok, professor of pervasive computing at City University, London, featuring the phone that wakes you up to the smell of bacon

Tell me about your research
“We are trying to bring all the five senses to the internet, so we can transmit and communicate in a multisensory way.”

OK, so how does it work?
“We have a device called Scentee which you attach to your mobile phone. What it does is emit a puff of scent, such as bacon, coffee or lavender, (using chemical cartridges) when you send someone a text message. We have similar devices to produce taste using only electrical current. So if you’re cooking, you can send the taste and smell of your cooking to all of your Facebook friends. We are also looking at touch technology, making devices like RingU, where you connect your ring to the internet via your mobile phone. You can be thinking of your friend, who might be anywhere in the world, and squeeze your ring and they will then get a squeeze on their finger.”

Why should the public be interested in your research?
“Currently the internet is very much about audio and visual communication. But the sense of touch, taste and smell are very important in our physical communication – these senses are connected to the limbic system of the brain which is responsible for emotion and memory. So when you’re chatting online or Skyping, you actually lose a lot of the human emotion. We want to bring these senses to the internet so in the future you will be able to have a sense of presence.”

What are the challenges you face?
“There’s a saying that in the 21st century the most valuable research is time, because now with the internet we basically have infinite information. Yes, time and funding are very important, but you need to have some creativity. You need to have students who are willing to not do incremental work, but what I call quantum step work. In the atom the electrons will fly around in the one band, but that is incremental work. What you need to do is jump to the next quantum gap. We need to have young people who will become scientists and engineers, but it’s really great during education if they are exposed to the creative arts and other fields so they can understand creativity and design.

“We have to remove the barrier between academia and the public, and if you don’t, it is the universities that are going to suffer, because knowledge is going to become more and more free – and you are seeing this now with things like Ted talks. Universities and researchers have to keep up with the internet age and that’s very important to survive in the 21st century.”

What excites you about research?
“I want to invent completely new technology and push the barrier of knowledge. People might think it is really wacky or crazy at the time, but then when you can show them that it really works, you can get a lot of very positive feedback. The most important thing to do is to be totally original.”


City’s Circus for the Senses wows audiences at Natural History Museum

Research showcased as part of Universities Week

13 June 2014

How do you share the taste of your favourite meal or send a scent over the internet? Visitors to the Natural History Museum this week had the chance to find out at City’s Circus for the Senses.big_thumbnail

Held as part of Universities Week, City’s stand showcased the ground-breaking work of Adrian Cheok, Professor of Pervasive Computing, accompanied by his PhD students Marius Braun and Jordan Tewell.

More than 850 people visited the stand to get a feel and taste of the brave new world of the multi-sensory internet. It featured the Scentee device which connects to a smartphone and emits the smell of your favourite scent – be that a virtual bouquet of flowers or the smell of bacon to wake you up in the morning. Also on display were the first ever telehug ring and a digitally actuated lollipop to stimulate the taste buds with salty, sweet and sour flavours.

big_thumbnail (1)Professor Cheok, from City’s School of Mathematics, Computer Science & Engineering, is the founder and director of the Mixed Reality Lab. His research covers human-computer interfaces, wearable computers and ubiquitous computing.

Speaking about the exhibition Professor Cheok said: “It was great to have so many people young and old, from all walks of life, try our demonstrations, and ask detailed questions. Our research is all about human-computer interaction, so being able to hear visitors’ feedback about our inventions was brilliant. People were so interested they even enquired how can they study at City University London!”

See Adrian explain his demonstrations to the media.

This year’s Universities Week saw the Natural History Museum host some of the most cutting-edge research from the UK’s universities, highlighting how university research is helping to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges.

City was also recognised for its work in public engagement. Researchers from the School of Health Scienceswon the Health and Wellbeing award in the national Engage Competition, run by the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE).

Recognised for successfully developing community engagement and collaborative working in mental health nursing research, SUGAR (Service User and Carer Group Advising on Research) – which is facilitated by Professor Alan Simpson from the School of Health Sciences – was the winning project from over 230 entries.


Professor Adrian David Cheok elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts


Professor of Pervasive Computing, Professor Adrian Cheok, is honoured at becoming a new Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA)

Professor Adrian David Cheok, chair Professor of Pervasive Computing at City University London, has been elected to be a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).

Royal-Society1The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) is an enlightenment organisation which is committed to finding innovative practical solutions to today’s social challenges. Through its ideas, research and 27,000-strong Fellowship, it seeks to understand and enhance human capability so we can close the gap between today’s reality and people’s hopes for a better world. Based in London and founded in 1754, the RSA was granted a Royal Charter in 1847 and the right to use the term Royal in its name by King Edward VII in 1908.

The RSA Fellowship is a network of people from a wide range of backgrounds, united by a desire to build a better society. There are over 27,000 Fellows in more than 80 countries, working together for the benefit of their communities. The RSA supports Fellows in developing local networks and initiatives and through RSA Catalyst programme it provides money and expertise to Fellow-led ideas that aim to have a positive social impact. Fellows elected to the Fellowship must have demonstrated significant achievement to the arts, manufactures and commerce. They come from various backgrounds and are social leaders in their respective areas.

Through his Mixed Reality Lab, (https://mixedrealitylab.org/) Professor Cheok explores mixed reality, human-computer interfaces, wearable computers and ubiquitous computing, fuzzy systems, embedded systems and power electronics. Professor Cheok and his colleagues are actively researching in the field of ’empathetic communication’, by digitally conveying smell and touch.

Reacting to news of his Fellowship, Professor Cheok said:

“Being elected a Fellow of the RSA is without doubt an honour for both myself and City. It is even more of an honour to join a highly respected society whose past members and present members include Charles Dickens, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, William Hogarth, John Diefenbaker, Stephen Hawking and Tim Berners-Lee and is committed to finding innovative and practical solutions to today’s social challenges. Further to this, my election to the RSA falls in line with the goals of City in making a real impact on business and the professions.”

For further information on the RSA please visit http://www.thersa.org