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Smell-o-grams: backing into the future


By Scott Bradner, Network World, 03/05/07


The South Korean Ministry of Information and Communication recently surveyed 3,500 South Korean techies on their views of what the tech future holds. Sadly, the prediction that the press seized on says more about the press than the future.


According to the press coverage, the survey -- which does not seem to be online yet at the Ministry's English site -- made a number of predictions including exoskeletons for soldiers, eyeglasses with built-in 3-D cameras and nanoscale robots that would be used to clear clogged blood vessels.


None of these ideas is new (for example, nanoscale robots were predicted by Ed Fredkin in the mid-1960s), but at least they seem to be things that, if developed, could be generally useful. The prediction that was highlighted in all the press coverage I saw, however, concerned the ability, by 2015, to send smell-o-grams -- commands to remote devices to produce smells.


I'm not quite sure why this idea is so attractive. It's also far from new. I first saw mention of this sort of thing sometime in the 1980s, in a Usenet posting that listed scores of smells you might be able to send to someone else (including: diapers, fresh; diapers, used; diapers in the hamper, nine days old). That was two decades after Aroma-Rama was used to send smells into theaters showing the film "Behind the Great Wall" and Smell-O-Vision was used to do the same in theaters showing the 1960 film "Scent of Mystery." Safe to say, the idea has not caught on of smelling up a theater (more than they normally smell) in time with the action on the screen.


This is not to say that some people do not think the idea has potential. For example, Trisenx sells a device that plugs into a PC to "get your smell on" (as its Web page puts it). That device costs $395. The company also sells a $895 software package that developers can use to create "scent-enabled content."


I can see where such a device could be useful, for example, in a store to demonstrate different perfumes (assuming the device could accurately reproduce perfumes' nuances). But I fail to see anything like this becoming a normal part of home or office computers. Why would you want it? Advertisers might love the idea at first, but I expect they quickly would find that users turned the devices off to avoid smelling up the house -- or worse, letting co-workers know what they were looking at. (See Julia Williams' article in Associated Content for some of the abuse that advertisers might be tempted to try.)


The potential for denial-of-service attacks using this technology are frightening to contemplate. This goes well beyond the idea of stinking out the office with vile odors. Think of the implications of sending a target whose home office is in a rural area the scent of a female moose in heat.


I just cannot figure out why the press found this old, failed idea worthy of being highlighted as a future. It does fit into my general feeling that too many in the press lack basic common sense (different than common scents) when it comes to what people actually would want to do.


Disclaimer: Google gets more than a thousand hits for "scent" and "", but none of them represent the university's view on smell-o-grams, nor does this column.


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