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Senses and the internet: Do you smell something?

Opinion, 22 August 2014

This post by Bronwen Morgan originally appeared on Research Live.

The internet is currently based around audio and visual interactions, but may soon extend to all five senses, says Professor Adrian David Cheok in his session at the MRS Connected World conference.

Professor Cheok, who specialises in pervasive computing at City University and is the founder and director of the Mixed Reality Lab in Singapore, described in his session on connecting through sensation how non-verbal communication makes up more than half of all communication. This, Cheok says, illustrates the importance of the idea that we are due to move to the next stage of the internet: "from information communication to experience communication."

Touch, and the desire to touch, says Cheok, is one of the most basic animal needs, as demonstrated by laboratory experiments where baby rhesus monkeys show preference for a cuddly fake mother (covered in fur) that does not give milk over a wire mesh mother that does.

This field of knowledge has led to the development of products such as RingU, which can transmit a 'squeeze' over the internet, and Huggy Pajama, which can transmit a hug via a wearable jacket wired up to a computer. These kinds of technology, says Cheok, can allow us to move from the typical one-to-one transmission of touch to a one-to-many model. "Once we digitise touch," he says, "we can have new touch relations."

Smell and taste

The senses of smell and taste, explains Cheok, are the only senses that are directly connected to the limbic system, the area of the brain linked to emotion. For that reason, the digitisation of these senses is particularly compelling.

The audience at the session were given a live demonstration of a mobile phone attachment that transmits the smells of roses and whisky, prompted by a text message. A particularly brave audience member also volunteered to test out a newly-developed sensor which, when placed directly on the tongue, can invoke a sour taste in the mouth through stimulation of the taste receptors in the tongue.

The idea that the senses can be digitised means that they can also be recorded and stored. This, in theory, would allow us in the future to record our favourite smells from childhood, or the hug of a loved one so that it can be experienced when they are no longer around, says Cheok.

For the more commercially-minded, there is also the possibility of being able to "charge people $100 to hug Madonna".

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