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Interview - Sensor
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Rose scent on the Internet        


Milon Gupta

Multimedia is entering a new dimension. Our eyes and ears are already exposed to digital text, photos, sounds, and videos. Now digital media are about to grab our noses as well. Recording and playing the scent of roses from your garden and of buns from your local bakery may soon become as easy as taking and showing digital photos.

Scientists at the Tokyo Institute of Technology have developed a new device, which records odours and later reproduces them. Just point the device to a rose, for example, and it will record the emanating odour. The device analyzes smells through 15 sensors, records the odour's composition in digital format, and then reproduces the scent by mixing 96 non-toxic chemicals and vaporizing the result.

Applications of the odour recorder

Takamichi Nakamoto, the creator of the technology, imagines applications of the odour recorder in the food and flavour industry as well as in cosmetics and the perfume industry, but also in e-commerce, home electronics, and gaming.

Dr. Takamichi Nakamoto,
the inventor of the odour recorder.#

Replicating odours could enhance the marketing of consumer goods, giving customers the chance to smell packaged goods before they buy them. Scent marketing could go beyond the point of sale into the world-wide web, allowing smells to be recorded in one place and transmitted to interested noses anywhere in the world. Thus, online shoppers could, for instance, check out perfumes or flowers before they buy.

The device could also be used to add an extra dimension to virtual reality environments and even to assist military doctors treating soldiers remotely by recreating bile, blood or urine odours that might facilitate a diagnosis.

So far, the Japanese odour recorder has been successfully tested on a more limited scope of smells. It recreated a range of fruit smells, including oranges, apples, bananas and lemons. However, it could be reprogrammed to produce almost any odour, from old fish to gasoline, said Dr. Nakamoto.

Nakamoto’s vision

His vision is that any smell can be captured and sent via a mobile device. Beyond food and perfume, Dr. Nakamoto also thinks of tourist use: travellers could capture typical smells from an exotic place and send them as a souvenir together with photos and videos to relatives and friends at home.

However, at the moment, this vision is still far from reality. The current prototype measures 100 x 70 centimetres, which is too big to be portable. The unit's large size is due to the space required for the 96 odour-forming chemicals, which are contained in separate glass bottles. As humans have 347 olfactory sensors, this number of chemicals is required to synthesize any odour. In order to replay a smell, drops from the relevant vials are mixed, heated and vaporised. A more compact version of the device, which includes only the sensors, can record smells, but must be hooked up to the blender to regenerate them. However, Dr. Nakamoto is already working on new solutions: “Recently we have developed the laptop PC-size odour blender with 32 odour components. It will be demonstrated at several exhibitions in Japan this autumn.”

Besides making the device smaller, Dr. Nakamoto also wants to extend the range of smells. “Then we can think about commercializing the system," he said. According to him, an odour recorder with limited functions will appear in two or three years, but the odour recorder with the complete function will appear only in ten years at the earliest.

Dr. Nakamoto has been working on the fragrance recorder since 1999. He claims that it is the most advanced of its kind in the world. Nakamoto's team of 12 scientists has been collaborating with a Japanese perfume company that produces the raw ingredients for fragrances and with electronics companies interested in the sensor chip technology.

According to Dr. Nakamoto, making the 15 sensor chips, which pick up aromas and convert them to a digital formula, was the hardest part.


While development of the odour recorder is still ongoing, another odorous project from Japan has already hit the noses of customers. In April, NTT Communications had launched the Smell-o-Vision project that synchronized smells to movie scenes. During the historical adventure movie “The New World”, seven fragrances wafted from machines under back row seats.

The concept of Smell-o-Vision is not new. It was already created in 1960 by Mike Todd Jr. who delivered scents throughout his film “Scent of Mystery”. 30 different smells were injected into a movie theatre's seats when triggered by the soundtrack. Problems propagating the scents in sync with the film and flushing the scents out between each showing led to Smell-o-Vision's early demise.

In 2000, France Télécom R&D started a project on the diffusion of fragrances through telecom networks, which, however, has not led to a commercial telecoms service so far.

It remains to be seen, if the Japanese fragrance recorder will be more successful, or if consumers prefer to keep their noses free.

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