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Playing on TVs of the future: Smell-O-Vision?

Odor pixels are poised to take Smell-O-Vision to the next level with a smell-generating component for TVs and cell phones under development at UC San Diego. Hopefully it will block those decaying-corpse smells from police dramas.

TV smell system
An electrical current is sent through the lead wires to heat an aqueous solution. The heat builds pressure, causing a tiny hole in an elastomer to open, releasing the odor, which is measured by the detector. UC San Diego

Nowadays, when a friend says her TV stinks, you assume she's talking about picture or sound quality. Some years down the road--assuming certain cross-Pacific R&D pans out--she might mean that literally.

Researchers at the University of California at San Diego are collaborating with Samsung to develop a compact odor-generating component for TVs and cell phones. The as-yet-unnamed device would give television programs and Web sites a palette of 10,000 odors.

Sure, people have been trying to add smell to visual media for a long time (Smell-O-Vision anyone?). The UC San Diego-Samsung collaboration, however, is pushing the technology closer to reality. Miniaturization and digitization are cracking the big challenges of odor-on-demand systems: control and variety.

Odor pixels are the key: a 100x100 matrix of tiny wires will make it easy to heat any one of 10,000 tiny liquid-filled containers.

It'd be cool to catch a whiff of ocean during a beach scene, or take in the heady odor of woodsmoke as a campfire flickers onscreen. But I'm thinking the smells have got to be totally natural. Otherwise, the intense pine forest experience I'm expecting might turn out to be a subliminal cue to break out household cleaning products. Maybe Samsung could offer an eco-organic version.

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And there has to be an option to block certain odors. When the intrepid investigators on CSI: Peoria wrinkle their noses upon finding a decaying corpse, I'd like to keep my distance. I'd also just as soon not have my living room filled with eau d' Burger King.

There's also the potential for mischief. How will I know if Samsung or some other TV maker is slipping pheromones into my TV's odor unit? That would give lusting after the latest techno-toys new meaning.

UC San Diego and Samsung aren't the only ones trying to bring back Smell-O-Vision. NTT Communications has installed an odor-generating kiosk in a Tokyo mall to add smells to restaurant advertising, ScentSciences sells a 20-smell USB device for PCs and game consoles, and other Japanese researchers are trying to make it happen by adapting inkjet technology.