By Christopher Vautrinot
Human communication often encompasses a mixture of senses. People connect with one and other through a combination of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. The virtual world aims to become a popular mode of communication as individuals form bonds with people across the world. This technology currently engages two of the senses – sight and sound. However, Professor Adrien David Cheok, director of the Mixed Reality Lab, believes that virtual communication may one day embrace all the human senses – making it a truly physical experience. Professor Cheok is at the forefront of this technology, integrating touch, taste and smell into current technology. ‘Telepresent technology’ may help form and maintain relationships at distances in an increasingly globalised world. Combining pre-existing mobile technology and a plug-in device, the Scentee provides smell based notifications to the user. Designed by Professor Cheok, the small bulb like device releases scents from cartridges. For example a user may choose to set their alarm to wake up to the smell of coffee, or they may receive a certain smell depending on who contacts them. Professor Cheok’s Scentee has proved popular in Japan on a commercial scale, and has more recently become available worldwide. Whilst digitilising this chemical sensation is challenging, Professor Cheok aims to further the technology by manufacturing a magnetic coil that sits near the olfactory bulb (part of the brain responsible for interpreting smell). This would stimulate the artificial perception of smell. “It is actually true that a smell can subconsciously change your mood, so they are very important senses that you can bring to the internet.”
Taste is another sense which Professor Cheok aims to bring into the virtual world. He has developed a device which stimulates the tongue through electrical impulses. It may recreate sweet, sour, salty or bitter sensations. Using different combinations of heat and amperage Professor Cheok and his team are experimenting to develop a host of different tastes through the device. The team envisions a future where family members may be able to experience eating together at the dinner table from the other side of the planet.
Touch is the final sense in the physical jigsaw. Through such behavior as hugging, touch has the ability to comfort and create a sense of safety. Professor Cheok created the ‘Huggy Pajama’ designed primarily for parents who may want to send hugs to their children when away at work. Connected through the internet, the wearable jacket is filled with air pockets and heating components that inflate and warm in areas that help recreate the sensation of a hug. However, the virtual sensation of touch may be more subtle. Professor Cheok also helped design the RingU, described as the first ‘tele-hug’ ring. The device aims to bring friends, partners or family members closer together by providing a subtle hugging sensation on the finger. Through the internet, the user may send a signal to their companion’s RingU. The receiving ring then squeezes, providing a simple, effective message that the person is thinking of them. Users of the RingU may also change the intensity of the sensation and the colour that the ring emits, depending on the emotion that they want to convey.
Professor Cheok believes people may move from the age of information into the “age of experience”. He believes that, as this technology develops, virtual communication may become a fully immersive physical experience – important in the future of online communication. His goal is to “go beyond the chemicals” and create a fully integrated, immersive virtual experience. Individuals may therefore socialise and communicate with all of their senses through the internet. Rather than receiving a descriptive text of a trip to the pub, individuals may one day virtually experience the atmosphere through online communication. The Scentee, RingU and taste technology all mark the beginning of this complete, physical digitalisation of the senses. Professor Cheok and his colleagues are fast developing the technology to find novel ways to bring telepresence to the public.
How else might telepresent technology help bring people closer together?