During one of those now oh-so-rare long intellectual discussions yesterday, I started wondering how we could capture and transmit smell! We have photographs and videos to capture sights. We have sound recorders to capture sounds. We have words, and text such as this in order to capture thoughts. However, is there any way that one can capture and transmit smell? Or taste for that matter?

Suppose you have gone on work to Timbuktu, and want to describe the way you feel to your wife back home. You can send her photographs with the sights. You can call her and allow her to take in the sounds of the ancient city. However, the one reason her experience will be incomplete is because there is currenlty no way you can accurately describe to her the smells of the place!

If it’s standard smells, you can go some extent. You can say “Timbuktu smells like a rose” or “Timbuktu’s cafes smell like the smell of earth as soon as it has rained”. Unfortunately, there are two problem with this. Firstly, most smells are not “standard”. They are a superposition of smells. Secondly, it requires some imagination on the part of your wife to even recognize such standard sounds (unless of course she has samples of all these “standards”).

Suppose we had a smell transmitter-cum-receiver. There is one such machine attached to your laptop in Timbuktu (it is a small portable machine and can be attached by a USB cable), and one connected to your desktop at home (or say, your wife’s laptop). The transmitter in Timbuktu takes in the smells of the place, and converts that into a certain code, which is sent home, where the machine converts the code to smells and emits them! And bingo, the experience is complete for your wife!

The scope for this kind of machine would be phenomenal. Tourism websites can include samples of the smells of the places they are advertising. There will be smell blogs, like we have photoblogs today. Three other uses stand out – “smelly movies” – where the smell of the theater will change according to the scene in the movie, providing a much more wholesome experience. The other is in terms of restaurant websites. They online menus can include a sample of the smell of the better-smelling dishes – you need to wait and see how people will come pouring in to the restaurant! Then, these machines can collaborate effectively with sniffer dogs and help catch thieves!

Coming to the practical aspects, the fight is in having a smell sensor. A smell transmitter, in my opinion, is more easy to make. I suggest the following way to overcome the problem. We have a set of standard smells, like we have Red, Blue and Green. Let us assume that every smell in the world can be represented as a linear combination of these standard smells. There will be knobs attached to the machine which you can control to set the levels of various standard smells. And you manually keep turning these knobs until the smell emanated from the machine is exactly the same as the smell of the surroundings! And hit transmit.

The smell is now just a vector – the coefficients of various standard smells. The same can easily be reproduced at the machine back home. Done!

Of course, now the next challenge will be to identify the standard smells. Feed each machine with these standard smells (don’t know how to do it), and to be able to control the emission of various smells. I don’t know if the substance in the machines which produce the smells are actually consumables, and if we need to keep refilling the machines. Still, in view of the large number of benefits of the system, I think it is worth a try!

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