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Calming Cars, Human-scented Robots: Advances in Smell Technology

Calming Cars and Human-Scented Robots: Scientists Hail Breakthrough in Smell Technology
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A man selling pillows and mattresses walks past debris from the flood brought by Typhoon Vamco, in Marikina, Metro Manila, Philippines.

Would you buy a car that sprayed soothing odors when you’re stuck in rush-hour traffic? Or how about a robot that smells like a human being?

Scientists say that new technology means we will soon be using devices like these in our everyday lives. At this month’s British Science Festival in Brighton, researchers from Britain’s University of Sussex offered a demonstration of the technology that could be just around the corner.

The 3D animations of Virtual Reality have become commonplace. Now scientists have created virtual worlds that even smell like the real thing. When users open a virtual door and step into a new world, in this case into a rainforest, diffusers spray the appropriate scent for added authenticity.

Immersive experience

“It is a really immersive experience that you have because you’re exploring this environment and you have smells that correspond with it,” festival visitor Suzanne Fisher-Murray told VOA.

Smell technology has been tried before, famously in the United States with Smell-O-vision movies in the 1960s. Multisensory researcher Emanuela Maggioni of the University of Sussex says it’s on the cusp of a comeback.

“The connection with emotions, memories, and the potential to use the sense of smell, the odors, under the threshold of our awareness — it is incredible what we can do with technology,” Maggioni said.

And not just for entertainment. In another corner of the room, a driving simulator has been fitted with a scent diffuser.

“In this demonstration, we wanted to deliver the smell of lavender every time the driver exceeds the speed limit. We chose lavender because it’s a very calming smell,” co-researcher Dmitrijs Dmitrenko said.

Scent and human behavior

Scientists are experimenting with using scent instead of audible or visual alerts on mobile phones. Businesses already are using scent to influence customers’ behavior.

“Not only for marketing in stores, so creating the logo brand. But on the other side, you can create and stimulate impulse buying. So you’re in a library and you smell coffee and actually you are unconsciously having the need to drink a coffee,” Maggioni said.

She adds that scent is vital in human interactions — for example, when men smell tears, levels of testosterone are reduced and they show more empathy. That physiological reaction can be applied to new technology.

“In the interaction with robots — how we can build trust with robots if the robots smell like us,” Maggioni said.

It portends an exciting, and perhaps for some, daunting future. Scientists say the sense of smell, until now largely unexploited, is about to stimulated by the march of technology.