Exclusives : (DRAFT) Tasting digital: How the way you sense the world will change

(DRAFT) Tasting digital: How the way you sense the world will change

In 2013, Google announced the launch of a revolutionary search tool: Google Nose. This feature would allow people to search for scents. That is, instead of just reading about a flower or visualising a photo of it, you could smell it using your laptop or smartphone. Too good to be true?

It certainly was: It was an April Fool’s joke after all. But almost eight years later, technologies like this are inching closer to become a reality.

Actually, there is already a term for them. Ericsson’s Research team, for example, calls the new era of connectivity the Internet of Senses, in which people will be able to virtually feel the world without using gadgets, smartphones included. It consists of six applications – mind, smell, sight, taste, touch, and sound.

In a survey conducted with 7,608 respondents, Ericsson found that 68 per cent of the consumers want to use at least one of these applications by 2030, and stunning 81 per cent are open to the idea overall.

But before we can attain that future, technology needs to evolve. Prior to 5G, mobile networks did not provide the necessary capabilities to deliver such experiences. Even today’s advancements like virtual reality and augmented reality demand more from the internet than it can easily support. However, this is starting to change, according to the Ericsson report.

“We live in a screen-based 4G world where smartphones are integral to our lives, but people aren’t expecting this to be the case for much longer. As consumers step further into this sensory digital world, they will require hyper-fast connectivity, imperceptible edge computing-based lag and advanced automation,” the report reads.

It’s not only consumers who will require enhanced performance from mobile networks: New technologies will demand more robust network capabilities if they are to come to market over 5G and, in the future, 6G.

Holograms, for instance, will use volumetric video instead of today’s two-dimensional model. That means the available data rate for sending real 3D images over the internet must be much higher, from 5G’s 20 Gbps to 6G’s expected 1 Tbps.

But video and audio are just the tip of the iceberg compared to the experiences that the Internet of Senses could provide by 2030.

Imagine you can taste beforehand the flavour of a meal you want to order online, or a beverage you will gift for your significant other in a virtual store. Or even to fill up a cup of water and decide how the liquid will taste.

Well, this last one can already be done.

Adding a spoonful of sugar to the Internet of Senses

Bringing odours to virtual experiences is nothing new per se. Attempts to add these sensations to movie theatres started in the 1910s, while perhaps the most famous experience with it, Smell-O-Vision, became well-known in the 1960s.

Six decades later, video and audio are still the main subjects of studies and technology advancements, while taste and smell continue to lag behind. The explanation for that is not as simple as you might imagine.

“I think it has a long answer. But, in short, this is more a high risk, high reward area in terms of the research mindset,” says Nimesha Ranasinghe, Assistant Professor at the University of Maine. “That is why I think a lot of people do not want to move into this new landscape, especially related to engineering, devices, and all these tangible aspects. But that does not mean people are not studying the concepts behind [these] perceptions.”

Ranasinghe has been researching this field since 2008, when he started thinking about how to humanise the technology for his PhD project. Since then, he and his team have come up with some prototypes, including (see images below, in order of citation):

  • The Vocktail: A bottle that lets the user personalise the taste of the water. It is equipped with aroma tubes and LED lights to enhance the experience, and electrodes responsible for stimulating the tongue. There is also an app which controls the taste.
  • The Virtual Lemonade: A set of appliances that allow a person to share a taste over the internet. It is equipped with a sensor that captures the colour and pH of a real lemonade.
  • The Virtual Lollipop: A system that simulates tastes as in a lollipop.

All these inventions stimulate areas in the tongue to recreate flavours without using chemicals. The Vocktail and the Virtual Lemonade also include colour change, which influences the final perception of taste.

These are some of the first steps in creating a sensory internet in the future. Ranasinghe says that next generations of mobile connectivity, 6G included, will play a significant role in enabling more senses within digital experiences. But that, right now, the safer bet is on the Internet of Things.

“When we move to 5G and then 6G and beyond, I think we will start to add new solutions, like the virtual reality experience. We will be able to create technologies to immediately connect to someone else’s stream in virtual reality. And then you are not there only with the visual aspects, but also [others like] the haptic sensations,” the professor said. “Researchers around the world are looking at other potential applications. The Internet of Things is one of the aspects which has huge potential.”

Not only for commercial purposes

Even though sensory solutions are receiving heavy attention from the retail world – it is no coincidence that the “Internet of Senses” term has been coined by Ericsson’s Consumer Lab – the rise of such technologies can largely benefit people with disabilities.

And at least in a basic level, the foundation for it is being already laid. “One year and a half ago, there were some visitors in the lab. I had created a random taste or flavour experience with the chocolate smell. Apparently one of the visitors was allergic to chocolate, had never had the taste of it since he was five or six years old. He started to drink the water and went crazy,” Ranasinghe said.

According to him, the Internet of Senses can also have utility for people facing chemotherapy treatment and who have lost their ability to taste flavours, for example.

While we are years away from being able to sniff smells on e-commerce websites, the good news is that progress has been made quickly. As Ranasinghe says, “We can already see some of the gains of these solutions, probably not using digital technologies to enable them. […] But I would say it could be done pretty soon.”




To reserve your ticket please fill out the registration form