When news broke this week that smell-evision could be on the way to our TV sets, I called Sungho Jin, an engineering professor at the University of California, San Diego. His research demonstrates the possibility of odor-emitting TV and will be detailed in a forthcoming paper in the journal Angewandte Chemie. Below are excerpts from our interview.
What inspired you to research this?
We human beings have five senses. We utilize vision and hearing in electronic products: TV, movies, cell phones. What’s next? The sense of smell seems to be the most logical one. With tasting, you’d have to get approval from the FDA, which is complicated. With touching, you’d need more complicated devices to do virtual reality.
It occurred to us that perhaps with smell you could control it and release it electrically. I heard of movie theaters in the 1950s that released an odor from the wall of the theater mechanically [when showing a movie scene with food or a certain environment]. But for TVs and cell phones and modern electronic products, we needed to do it electrically. We demonstrated that we could selectively release certain smells from a matrix of arrays by simply pushing a button. If we can do this electrically, we can make an array of thousands of scents.
Describe what the system would look like and how it would work.
One can imagine this could be made in the form of a cartridge, like a printer cartridge. You could stick it on the back or the side of a TV or a cell phone. The release of scents would be programmed. It’s like the [evolution from] silent movies to movies with sound. They had to struggle to synchronize the timing of the voice to the image on the screen. They worked it out. We can do the same thing, timing the release of odor with the image on the screen. We can do it electrically. It’s pre-programmed.
Talk about how you tested this.
We used some chemicals to do quantitative measurements, but people are not interested in the smell of chemicals. We took real-life scents, two perfumes: Live by Jennifer Lopez and Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion. We put these fragrances in liquid form into our array. We pushed certain buttons to release this perfume smell. We had a human subject, one of my grad students, standing a few feet away with a stop watch counting how many seconds it took for the Jennifer Lopez perfume to reach his nose. Then, he wiped out the previous scent by smelling coffee beans. We pushed another button that released the Elizabeth Taylor perfume and he was able to smell that one. That was the demonstration. We can do the same thing with tens of thousands of odors.
Other than perfume, what scents could be possible with this technology?
A bed of roses. The smell of lavender. All sorts of flowers. Food fragrances, like the smell of lobster. If you go to the ocean, you get this distinct ocean smell. If you go to the forest, you can smell pine trees. In the movie Scent of a Woman with Al Pacino, he was a blind man who wanted the love of a woman. In a movie like this, one could pre-program it so that when a woman shows up near Al Pacino, a scent of maybe perfume or hair shampoo [is released].
How does this expand on previous work?
People have been working on this, but many of them have mechanical means. As I mentioned, some 1950s movie theaters had this crude smell coming out from the wall of the theater. But we demonstrated that with an electrical signal we can release any scent that we want. We can have an array of many scents. We advanced the technology in a big way by demonstrating electrical triggering and being able to show an array system. We’re a little closer to practical realization. I don’t know how many years it will take. Movie producers might be interested. Food advertising companies would be interested.
What’s the next step?
Research and development. If a movie producer comes to me and says, ‘We’d like to have a movie that gives out 50 different kinds of scents,’ we’ll come up with a system. We can make a prototype. We have to start from somewhere.
Photo, top: Grad students measure odor released when the mini chamber containing liquid fragrance is electrically triggered / By Catherine Hockmuth
Photo, bottom: Sungho Jin