The Smell-O-Matic

>A team of Japanese scientists has developed a device that can transmit odors electronically. Led by Takamichi Nakamoto of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, the group claims that their, as yet unnamed, system can record and replicate a broad range of scents by using chips with sensors that capture the molecular components of a particular fragrance, transmit this formula to a replicator, and reproduce the chemical compound.

"The sensitivity of the human nose is very good," Nakamoto told the Associated Press this week. "But to some extent we can replicate the performance."

Nakamoto, who has been working on the system for 17 years, said the device could one day be implemented in mobile phones, enabling users to transmit the smell of just about anything to anyone, anywhere. For instance, it could let you send the fragrance of fresh flowers to a particularly close friend or relative. Or it could be put to less pleasant uses (the mind boggles).

The big problem for Nakamoto right now, though, is that his device is big, too big. The machine, which uses chips containing 15 discrete sensors to record odors and a blender and vaporizer to mix the 96 chemicals needed to recreate them, takes up about 1 square meter of space. So, it will be quite some time before the researchers come up with a unit that will be practical.

Nonetheless, Nakamoto told the AP that the device has successfully recreated a range of fruit smells, such as oranges, apples, bananas, and lemons, but it can be reprogrammed to produce almost any odor, from old fish to gasoline. He said his team will concentrate on miniaturizing the machine and extending its range of odors in the future. "[T]hen we can think about commercializing the system," he said. The Tokyo Institute team's work has already attracted interest from a perfume company and an electronics firm, according to Nakamoto.

Just think, one day, in the not too distant future, such an invention may allow you to use your personal communicator, while on vacation, to send not only the images and sounds of a tropical paradise but the scents, as well. Or it could simply let you pull off some particularly zany practical jokes. Ah, technology.

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