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updated 6/23/2011 12:20:53 PM ET 2011-06-23T16:20:53

 

Our TV viewing and hearing experience has become infinitely more realistic in recent years with innumerable technological enhancements like HDTV, Blu-ray and surround sound.

But why limit our experience of television’s virtual reality to our senses of sight and sound ? Why not exploit our senses of touch, taste or smell, researchers at Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology in Korea asked themselves two years ago.

“At Samsung, they are interested in next-generation products,” said Sungho Jin, a professor of materials science in UC San Diego’s department of mechanical and aerospace engineering who was contacted by Samsung two years ago to work on this project.

“They wanted to get into the different senses for consumer products. Now TVs just use sight and sound, but they were thinking about getting other senses involved — smell, taste and touch. They didn’t know exactly how to do. We brainstormed and I said, 'Yes, I can do it.'”

Jin and his team have now come up with a system that can be programmed to release a desired scent upon demand and can be made small enough to fit into a TV or even cellphone. A movie could thus be programmed to trigger the release of the scent of seafood as soon as its stars sit down to a serving of squid. When the scene shifts to after-dinner espresso, the fragrance of freshly roasted coffee beans might waft through your home.

“Just like you can synchronize footage of a person’s lips moving to sound, you can program a person eating pizza to the smell of pizza,” said Jin. “You wouldn’t want to smell everything, just key things like perfume, pizza or the ocean breeze. “

In a new study published online in the journal Angewandte Chemie this month, the researchers have detailed a device that is essentially made of rubber and is divided into numerous chambers containing distinct odors in liquid form (ammonia or perfume, for example). When a particular scent is needed, a switch is activated to send an electrical current through a lead wire running through the appropriate chamber. This heats the aqueous solution within the chamber, causing some of the substance to evaporate and build up pressure. Once enough pressure has built up, a waft of the fragrance escapes through a tiny hole in the chamber and as a result you might sense whether an on-screen seductress has splashed herself with "Live by Jennifer Lopez" or "Passion by Elizabeth Taylor," two perfumes with which Jin tested the device (and his students correctly identified in an experiment).

The two biggest challenges for the researchers were leakage and size.

“You don’t want fragrance to leak out when it shouldn’t,” Jin said. “That’s why the chamber’s entrance is elastic. It remains closed unless enough pressure builds up.”

Also, the device had to be small enough to be practical for a consumer product such as a TV or phone.

“We resorted to an X-Y matrix system,” Jin said. “Otherwise, if you want to control 10,000 odors, you would need 10,000 switches to activate the individual electric currents. That’s too many to control.”

In other words, if you need the ability to secrete 10,000 distinct scents on demand, which Jin said would be sufficient for TV purposes, his system would employ 100 vertical and 100 horizontal wires that intersect in distinct chambers. Only when a chamber’s two wires receive an electric current, is the heat great enough to create sufficient pressure to discharge a fragrance. Thus, this matrix system means that a movie would need to be programmed to control just 200, rather than 10,000, switches.

“We will now try to further advance the technology and continue our research,” Jin said. “We’d like, of course, also to see engineers and companies advance it in terms of manufacturing and commercialization.”

 

 

 

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