On a mission to send smells, tastes virtually
In the third of a series of reports on the highlights of the Singapore Science Festival this year, we look how scientists are making it possible to create virtual worlds real enough to smell and taste.
SINGAPORE — See animals in a zoo that are so real, that you can smell them, when you are merely standing in a room with a video feed. Or send a kiss virtually, one that can be felt.
These are the “realities” Professor Adrian Cheok wants to create, in his mission to make communicating digitally more realistic — by making it possible to send touch, smells and tastes over the Internet.
Prof Cheok, who is from the Imagineering Institute, is among the scientists working in the field of simulation technology, to change the way people experience not just communications, but also science.
For example, children in Spain with certain diseases, who typically spend many hours in the hospital, can now “visit” the zoo virtually through a live 3D video feed, as part of an ongoing study by the Malaysia-based Institute and the University of Valencia to see if virtual zoos have a positive effect on the children.
Unlike sound and light, which are frequency-based and can be sent digitally, taste and smell are chemical-based, so the challenge is in using electrical signals to stimulate these senses, said Prof Cheok, who is working on a device that sends kisses virtually — with the help of a silicon device attached to a mobile phone — and another which artificially produces taste sensations.
Taste and smell are the “most difficult senses” to digitise, said Prof Cheok, and he is working on a project that has electrodes implanted inside the nose to stimulate olfactory receptor neurons to produce a smell.
Another device connects to the tongue to change its temperature, producing a sweet taste through thermal energy.
“In the future it may not be silver electrodes, it could be cutlery which has electrical signals … (with) a tiny wireless electrode in your nose connected to your smartphone,” he said.
Currently, simulation technology in the market is focused on augmented reality, and more widely seen in advertising and entertainment, he said. But researchers focus on inventing new technology and then work with businesses to figure out how it can be made into useful commercial products.
Simulation technology can recreate novel experiences without causing harm, such as allowing people to “unwrap” a mummy — via a visualisation table at the Science Centre Singapore.
Created using X-rays, laser scans and photos of a real mummy, Neswaiu, a wealthy Egyptian priest who lived in the third century BC, visitors can zoom in on the touchscreen to examine Neswaiu’s sarcophagus, and then peel off layers of the body on a touchscreen to study the anatomy, internal organs and even the amulets buried together with him.
The technology behind the Mummy Explorer was originally created for visual medical images so doctors could perform virtual autopsies, but the team “quickly realised there were wider opportunities for the use of the technology”, said Prof Anders Ynnerman, the scientist behind the technology.
The explorer “is a very nice way of being able to engage people … (and let) the general public have a feeling for what scientists are doing and what the scientific exploration process is like”, since they can actively participate and freely explore the mummies themselves.
The first interactive touch table was completed in 2009, and has been used in other museums, like the British Museum and the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm.
Prof Ynnerman said the British Museum was initially worried that the dazzle of a digital artefact would leave the real mummy in the cold. But they found that people spent thrice the amount of time at the exhibit, looking at the mummy, his digital counterpart, and then at the mummy again to study it closely.
He hopes that with such interactive visualisations can shorten the distance between scientific research and the general public, so that through exploring, they can feel “part of the scientific discovery”.