Friday, March 15, 2013

The Nose Knows

We have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste.  Those who design digital electronics utilize three of them, and now they want to add smell to the mix.  How?  Well, exactly.  Katy Steinmetz in Time (March 18, 2013 issue) says, "...entrepreneurs and researchers are trying to crack smell's code, developing aromatic ways to enhance what we watch, what we buy, how we communicate and potentially even how we monitor our health."


Retailers already have experimented with the power of scent to send subliminal messages to lure buyers to products in their stores.  And not just the perfume counter, either.  To state the obvious, restaurants have been doing this for years.  But what smell to you associate with jeans?  Swim suits?  Or bed linen? 

This reminds me of a scene in Minority Report when Tom Cruise enters a store and his eyes are immediately scanned by a retina scan that seemed to come out of nowhere.  Based on that scan, which gave the store his identity (this was after the eyes transplant), a seductive female voice welcomed him into the store and began suggesting products for him to buy.  Will our noses somehow be subjected to something similar?

It's really hard to appeal to the nose or try to replicate what it does.  The nose is intimately connected to the mouth and the sense of taste.  If you lose your sense of smell, taste diminishes and vice versa.  Different people respond differently to the same smell or taste.  Those smells that appeal to everyone may not be useful to retailers, or whoever else would like to exploit our noses.  Here are the examples Steinmetz gave in her article of what might be coming in the future to your nose:

South Korea's CJ Group has developed theaters in which technicians can release any of one thousand scents to correspond with the action on the movie screen.  Really?  This does not appeal to me at all, especially if the characters are in a swamp, at night, and are trying to find their way out.  The theater's concession stand could probably use this technology to send subliminal messages to people so they'd want to buy food and drinks.  But I'm not sure I'd be happy about being pulled and manipulated by the nose like that.

A similar technology may be coming to your television in the form of a set-top box that releases scent coordinated with onscreen action.  Engineering professor Sungho Jin at the University of California at San Diego is working on it.  I feel the same about this as about the movie theater odor technology above.

Scent marketers use scented advertising to sell product -- think of the obnoxious perfume inserts in magazines.  Then there's a Japanese company that's trying to make texts, as in text messaging, smell.  I suppose you could assign different scents to different people and when you receive a message from one, you'll get a whiff of his or her scent to announce the text's arrival.  Hmmmmm.....

Doctors can actually diagnose some conditions based on the scent of the patient's breath.  Adamant Technologies in San Francisco wants to develop phones that are personal health monitors to check our breath for cues about metabolic rates, insulin levels and disease biomarkers.  This is the only technology that I think is a good idea.  Especially if the phone would be connected to your doctor's computer.  Wow. 

So that thing in the middle of your face turns out to be even more important than we thought.  But I do think we need to think about ways to protect it and what it does from people who want to bombard it with odors in the pursuit of profit. 

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