Adrian Cheok with his taste-transmitting device. Photos by Jonathan Shkurko
Adrian Cheok, professor of pervasive computing at City University London and director of the Mixed Reality Lab at the National University of Singapore, is on a mission to transform cyberspace into a multi-sensory world. He wants to tear through the audiovisual paradigm of the internet by developing devices able to transmit smells, tastes, and tactile sensations over the web.
Lying on the desk in Cheok’s lab is one of his inventions: a device that connects to a smartphone and shoots out a given person’s scent when they send you a message or post on your Facebook wall. Then there’s a plexiglass cubic box you can stick your tongue in to taste internet-delivered flavours. Finally, a small plastic and silicone gadget with a pressure sensor and a moveable peg in the middle. It’s a long-distance-kissing machine: You make out with it, and your tongue and lip movements travel over the internet to your partner’s identical device—and vice versa.
“It’s still a prototype but we’ll be able to tweak it and make it transmit a person’s odour, and create the feeling of human body temperature coming from it,” Cheok says, grinning as he points at the twin make-out machines. Just about the only thing Cheok’s device can’t do is ooze digital saliva.
I caught up with Cheok to find out more about his work toward a “multi-sensory internet.”
The make-out device, plugged into an iPhone
Motherboard: Can you tell us a bit more about what you’re doing here, and what this multi-sensory internet is all about?
There is a problem with the current internet technology. The problem is that, online, everything is audiovisual and behind a screen. Even when you interact with your touchscreen, you’re still touching a piece of glass. It’s like being behind a window all the time. Also, on the internet you can’t use all your senses—touch, smell and taste—like you do in the physical world.
Here we are working on new technologies that will allow people to use all their senses while communicating through the Internet. You’ve already seen the kissing machine, and the device that sends smell-messages to your smartphone. We’ve also created devices to hug people via the web: You squeeze a doll and somebody wearing a particular bodysuit feels your hug on their body.
What about tastes and smells? How complex are the scents you can convey through your devices?
We’re still at an early stage, so right now each device can just spray one simple aroma contained in a cartridge. But our long-term goal is acting directly on the brain to produce more elaborated perceptions.
What do you mean?
We want to transmit smells without using any chemical, so what we’re going to do is use magnetic coils to stimulate the olfactory bulb [part of the brain associated with smell]. At first, our plan was to insert them through the skull, but unfortunately the olfactory part of the brain is at the bottom, and doing deep-brain stimulation is very difficult.
And having that stuff going on in your brain is quite dangerous, I suppose.
Not much—magnetic fields are very safe. Anyway, our present idea is to place the coils at the back of your mouth. There is a bone there called the palatine bone, which is very close to the region of your brain that makes you perceive smells and tastes. In that way we’ll be able to make you feel them just by means of magnetic actuation.
Cheok demonstrates the taste-transmitter
But why should we send smells and tastes to each other in first place?
For example, somebody may want to send you a sweet or a bitter message to tell you how they’re feeling. Smell and taste are strongly linked with emotions and memories, so a certain smell can affect your mood; that’s a totally new way of communicating. Another use is commercial. We are working with the fourth best restaurant in the world, in Spain, to make a device people can use to smell the menu through their phones.
Can you do the same thing also when it comes to tactile sensations? I mean, can you put something in my brain to make me feel hugged?
It is possible, and there are scientists in Japan who are trying to do that. But the problem with that is that, for the brain, the boundary between touch and pain is very thin. So, if you perform such stimulation you may very easily trigger pain.
It looks like you’re particularly interested in cuddling distant people. When I used to live in Rome, I once had a relationship with a girl living in Turin and it sucked because, well, you can’t make out online. Did you start your research because of a similar episode?
Well, I have always been away from my loved ones. I was born in Australia, but I moved to Japan when I was very young, and I have relatives living in Greece and Malaysia. So maybe my motivation has been my desire to feel closer to my family, rather than to a girl. But of course I know that the internet has globalized our personal networks, so more and more people have long-distance relationships. And, even if we have internet communications, the issue of physical presence is very relevant for distant lovers. That’s why we need to change the internet itself.
The scent device in action
So far you have worked on a long-distance-hugging device and a long-distance-kissing machine. We also have gadgets that can transmit a person’s body odour. If I connect the dots, the next step will be a device for long-distance sex.
Actually, I am currently doing some research about that. You see, the internet has produced a lot of lonely people, who only interact with each other online. Therefore, we need to create technologies that bring people physically—and sexually—together again. Then, there’s another aspect of the issue…
As you noticed, if you put all my devices together, what you’re going to have soon are sorts of “multi-sensory robots”. And I think that, within our lifetime, humans will be able to fall in love with robots and, yeah, even have sex with them.
It seems to me all the work you’re doing here may be very attractive for the internet pornography business.
Of course, one of the big industries that could be interested in our prototypes is the internet sex industry. And, frankly speaking, that being a way of bringing happiness, I think there’s nothing wrong with that. Sex is part of people’s lives. In addition, very often the sex industry has helped to spur technology.
But so far I haven’t been contacted by anybody from that sector. Apparently, there’s quite a big gap between people working in porn and academia.