Smells are in­tel­li­gent sen­sors’ last fron­tier

China Daily (USA) - - BUSI­NESS -

Phones or watches may be smart enough to de­tect sound, light, mo­tion, touch, di­rec­tion, ac­cel­er­a­tion and even the weather, but they can’t smell.

That’s cre­ated a tech­nol­ogy bot­tle­neck that com­pa­nies have spent more than a decade try­ing to fill. Most have failed.

A pow­er­ful por­ta­ble elec­tronic nose, said Redg Sn­od­grass, a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist fund­ing hard­ware start-ups, would open up new hori­zons for health, food, per­sonal hy­giene and even se­cu­rity.

Imag­ine, he said, be­ing able to an­a­lyse what some­one has eaten or drunk based on the chem­i­cals they emit; de­tect dis­ease early via an app; or smell the fear in a po­ten­tial ter­ror­ist. “Smell,” he said, “is an im­por­tant piece” of the puz­zle.

It’s not through lack of try­ing. Aborted pro­jects and failed com­pa­nies lit­ter the aroma-sens­ing land­scape. But that’s not stop­ping new­com­ers from try­ing.

Like Tris­tan Rous­selle’s Greno­ble-based Ary­balle Tech­nolo­gies, which re­cently showed off a pro­to­type of NeOse, a hand-held de­vice he says will ini­tially de­tect up to 50 com­mon odors. “It’s a risky project. There are sim­pler things to do in life,” he said can­didly.

The prob­lem, said David Ed­wards, a chem­i­cal en­gi­neer at Har­vard Univer­sity, is that un­like light and sound, scent is not en­ergy, but mass. “It’s a very dif­fer­ent kind of sig­nal,” he said.

That means each smell re­quires a dif­fer­ent kind of sen­sor, mak­ing de­vices bulky and lim­ited in what they can do. The aroma of cof­fee, for ex­am­ple, con­sists of more than 600 com­po­nents.

France’s Al­pha MOS was first to build elec­tronic noses for lim­ited in­dus­trial use, but its foray into de­vel­op­ing a smaller model that would do more has run aground. Within a year of un­veil­ing a pro­to­type for a de­vice that would al­low smart­phones to de­tect and an­a­lyse smells, the web­site of its US-based arm Boyd Sense has gone dark. Nei­ther com­pany re­sponded to emails re­quest­ing com­ment.

The web­site of Adamant Tech­nolo­gies, which in 2013 promised a de­vice that would wire­lessly con­nect to smart­phones and mea­sure a user’s health from their breath, has also gone quiet. Its founder didn’t re­spond to emails seek­ing com­ment.

Fornow, star­tups fo­cus on nar­rower goals or on in­dus­tries that don’t care about porta­bil­ity.

Cal­i­for­nia-based Aromyx, for ex­am­ple, is work­ing with ma­jor food com­pa­nies to help them cap­ture a dig­i­tal pro­file for ev­ery odor, us­ing its Essence Chip. Wave some food across the de­vice and it cap­tures a dig­i­tal sig­na­ture that can be ma­nip­u­lated as if it were a sound or im­age file.

But, de­spite its name, this is not be­ing done on sil­i­con, says CEO

Mo­bile and wear­able are a decade away at least.” Chris Han­son, CEO of Cal­i­for­ni­abased Aromyx

Chris Han­son. Nor is the de­vice some­thing you could carry or wear. “Mo­bile and wear­able are a decade away at least,” he said.

Partly, the prob­lem is that we still don’t un­der­stand well how hu­mans and an­i­mals de­tect and in­ter­pret smells. The No­bel prize for un­der­stand­ing the prin­ci­ples of ol­fac­tion, or smell, was awarded only 12 years ago.

“The bi­ol­ogy of ol­fac­tion is still a fron­tier of science, very con­nected to the fron­tier of neu­ro­science,” said Ed­wards, the Har­vard chem­i­cal en­gi­neer.

That leaves star­tups reaching for lower-hang­ing fruit.

The bi­ol­ogy of ol­fac­tion is still a fron­tier of science.” David Ed­wards, a chem­i­cal en­gi­neer at Har­vard Univer­sity

Sn­od­grass is fund­ing a startup called Tzoa, a wear­able that mea­sures air qual­ity. He said in­ter­est in this from China is par­tic­u­larly strong. An­other, Nima, raised $9 mil­lion last month to build de­vices that can test food for pro­teins and sub­stances, in­clud­ing gluten, peanuts and milk. Its first prod­uct will be avail­able shortly, the com­pany said.

For now, mo­bile phones are more likely to de­liver smells than de­tect them. Ed­wards’ Va­por Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, for ex­am­ple, in April launched Cyrano, a tub-sized cylin­der that users can di­rect to emit scents from a mo­bile app — in the same way iTunes or Spo­tify di­rects a speaker to emit sounds.

Ja­panese startup Scen­tee is re­vamp­ing its scent-emit­ting smart­phone mod­ule, said co-founder Koki Tsub­ouchi, shift­ing fo­cus from send­ing scent mes­sages to con­trol­ling the fra­grance of a room.

There may be scep­ti­cism— his­tory and cin­e­mas are lit­tered with the residue of failed at­tempts to in­tro­duce smell into our lives go­ing back to the 1930s— but com­pa­nies sniff a re­vival.

Dutch group Philips filed a re­cent patent for a de­vice that would in­flu­ence, or prime, users’ be­hav­iour by stim­u­lat­ing their senses, in­clud­ing through smell. Nike filed some­thing sim­i­lar, pump­ing scents through a user’s head­phones or glasses to im­prove per­for­mance.

One day these de­vices will be com­mon­place, said Avery Gilbert, an ex­pert on scent and au­thor of a book on the science be­hind it, grad­u­ally em­bed­ding spe­cialised ap­pli­ca­tions into our lives.

“I don’t think you’re go­ing to solve it all at once,” he said.

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