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The Digital Transformation of … your nose

A device to provide electrical stimulation to your nose’s olfactory cells, thus enabling the creation of smell sensations in a digital form. Image credit: Surina Hariri et al, MVAR proceedings 2016, ACM library

The Virtual Reality world that we have been able to create is still a far cry from the Reality we are experiencing every day, to the point that it is impossible to be fooled into believing that a VR is real.

True, technology made amazing progress, the processing capability of chips support the creation of high fidelity graphics, we have reached tens of trillions of polygons per second, and the application of artificial intelligence help in creating graphics that “make sense”, like the rendering of shadows and reflections (that change depending on the objects involved). We are not to the point of creating clips that can completely fool our eyes (and brain) but we are pretty close. Yet, that is not enough. The point is that our “reality” is the result of processing, by our brain, of sensations derived from all our senses: sound, temperature, acceleration, touch, smell, taste…

Sounds are now rendered in very convincing ways, software can reproduce vibration and reflections caused by the ambient (and what is in the ambient) as well as multi-directionality. Indeed, sounds recreation can fool our brain although it needs to be synchronised with the events we perceive through our eyes (in some cases a slight asynchronism between image and sound is present and that immediately raises a red flag – I often wonder how good we are at perceiving even tiny slips, of the order of few milliseconds).

The problem is stimulating, in the proper way, our other senses.

The creation of smell sensations has been attempted using scents controlled by software, released at desired time, to provide olfactory stimulation. As shown in the figure researchers at Imagineering Institute in Malaysia developed a system for electrical stimulation of olfactory receptors in the nose (and similar ones exist to stimulate taste receptors on the tongue –digital lollipop– watch the clip and notice that it was produced in 2017, yet it did not take up). Interesting work, but the idea of sticking an electrode in my nose really it is not my cup of tea.

Haptics, to provide touch sensations, has also evolved significantly, now there are textiles that can transform a dress into a second skin controlled by software to replicate sensations on our body, like being touched, pushed…. and can even provide sensations of cold and warmth. The Human Fusion Institute is pursuing NeuroReality (TM) first applied to prosthetic touch (restoring the sense of touch to people who have lost a limb and are using a prosthetic one) and are now using their platform to support remote touching in Industry 4.0 environment.

In spite of all these advances the recreation of “reality” remains at the end of the rainbow.  Some are claiming that in order to create a full reality sensation we would need to skip our senses and interface directly with the brain, using an advanced (not yet available) Computer Brain Interface. It may come but so far it is also at the end of the rainbow.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.