So far as television goes, we're pretty spoilt these days. We can now watch in 3D if we want to, on a screen that is far too big for the once traditional corner-of-the-room placement, and we can also listen to heart-stopping surround sound audio - but there's still more sensory enjoyment to come. Researchers have now managed to create a proof of concept Smell-o-Vision device potentially capable of pumping out thousands of different odors, yet small enough to fit behind a TV.

The idea behind the two-year project was brought to researchers at the University of California, San Diego's Jacobs School of Engineering by the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Korea. SAIT needed some help in developing a practical means of delivering odors to viewers that match a scene on a TV screen.

For their device, Professor Sungho Jin and graduate students used an X-Y matrix system to keep the circuitry to a minimum - without which, such a system would require numerous individual controllers for the thousands of odors required for a commercial system. The device has 200 X-axis controllers and 100 on the Y-axis that could selectively activate each of the 10,000 possible odors stored within numerous non-flammable silicone elastomer compartments.

Scent is generated from an aqueous solution within the compartment - such as ammonia - that's turned to gas when heated via a thin metal wire. Pressure inside the compartment builds until a short burst of odor is released by the opening of a small hole in the elastomer, and the viewer is treated to the smell shortly after.

Two commercially-available perfumes were used to test the system, resulting in the volunteer tester confirming the presence of the released fragrance within 30 cm (11.8 inches) of the test chamber. Between odor bursts, the volunteer's nasal passages were cleared by exposure to coffee beans - a common practice used in perfume development to cleanse a tester's sense of smell.

The potential applications of this technology are mind-boggling - although, I have to admit that I would like some degree of control over which smells are thrown out from behind my TV. After all, I can appreciate that some extra enjoyment might be added to Ghostbusters if an odor gently wafted my way when Dr. Ray Stantz says, "Listen, do you smell something?" but I'm not so sure I would have the same appreciation for the unholy stench likely to be generated as James Woods grapples with the fallout from some enchiladas in Scary Movie 2.

While the team envisions users being able to top up the scents in commercially available systems in much the same way as we replace ink cartridges in printers, there are some issues to consider. Fragrance manufacturers may well jump at the opportunity of getting their latest creations up the noses of potential customers in the comfort of their living rooms, but whereas updated device firmware can be delivered automatically, keeping a Smell-o-Vision device updated with all the latest fragrances and perfumes, scents and smells could be somewhat problematic.

"That's a logistics problem," says Jin. "But in specific applications one can always think of a way."

Next on the agenda is the development of a scalable prototype device and the subsequent testing of its reliability for releasing odors on cue.

The paper entitled An X-Y Addressable Matrix Odor-Releasing System Using an On-Off Switchable Device by Hyunsu Kim, Kunbae Noh, Calvin J. Gardner, Dr. Seong Deok Kong, and Prof. Dr. Sungho Jin has been published in the international edition of the online journal, Angewandte Chemie.

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