It doesn't matter what sort of science-fiction you like, you can't out-weird the real world when it's in one of its moods. This week, the solar system has been invaded by three dwarf planets -- one named after a cartoon dog, another after a warrior princess -- while Logitech has launched a mutant mouse with seven controls and -- get this -- a motor to spin the scroll wheel for you. Decadent? If the Romans had IT, that's the sort of thing they'd be fiddling with even as the barbarians lobbed rockets across the Tiber. Watch out, is all I'm saying.
Or take nose recorders. "What's the silliest gadget you can imagine?" asked editor Michael Parsons, as we despondently scanned a news agenda that seemed to centre on pink PlayStations. "Oh, I don't know," I said. "Ear plugs that transform the voice of everyone you talk to into a variety of farmyard animal sounds? A nose recorder that senses what you smell, records it on a hard disk and plays it back to you later?"
Ridiculous. So of course the very next day, when the world tapped me on the shoulder and said "You know the Nakamoto Laboratory at the Tokyo Institute of Technology?" I knew at once. It was the Odour Recorder, come to life. There's a big array of sensor chips, each designed to spot a set of different smelly molecules, a laptop to record that data, and a big old mixing vat that gently blends nine special base pongs to recreate what the computer stored.
The frightening thing is, it may well work. The sensor chips are the end product of a hunk of recent research into nanotech, which is getting rather clever at wafting compounds over a chunk of silicon and working out what gets stuck. Nobody knows how our sense of smell works, but it looks as if you can build up complex scents from simple compounds, so it may well turn out that you can cobble together something along the lines of an inkjet printer that just squirts out the colour of scent you fancy.
The prototype's not quite ready to be inserted nasally, but don't worry -- Moore's Law will sort that out soon enough. It's also limited -- of all the vast spectrum of stench, it can currently record and replay just apple, orange and banana. Which does make it easy to build a simulator: buy a packet of Chewitts, select the appropriate squishy sweet, roll it between your fingers until it resembles a broad bean and shove it up your nostril. You'll be in the future in no time.
I still want the earplugs that make the CEO squeal like a little piggy, though. -RG