Is it a speaker system? Is it a pico-projector? Nope, it’s a smell-distributor. And it’s no dumb single-scent air-freshener either: NTT is testing the i-Aroma out as a way of actually communicating over the net by smell.
The device takes six different oil-based scent cartridges. Small doses from the relevant phials are blended and vaporized to release any one of a number of subtly-different smells, all commanded over a USB connection to a PC. It’s part of what NTT is calling a “fragrance communication system” and the whole idea is that aromas–which have a powerful psychological impact–can be remotely controlled to match a particular web experience. It’s basically a real version of the age-old TV presenters jokes about “smelly-vision,” and NTT is so serious about it it’s trialling it with hundreds of volunteers in Japan.
The current version is designed to work with an astrological program–which dulls the scientific value of the idea a bit, sadly. The computer and USB device system are apparently coordinated to display “a message from the dominant planet at a given hour” and emit a “matching fragrance” that’s tuned to suit different times of day, like waking, working or sleeping.
The notion of giving the Internet a nose has been around for years. Scientists and entrepreneurs have been coming up with scented gimmicks since at least 2000, as you can see from the digiscents blog. And while we’re still far from establishing an Olfactory Transmission Protocol (OTP), that hasn’t stopped people from continuing to pursue a way to bring a third sense to the web browsing experience.
Since you can substitute your own scents in there, and even run the i-Aroma USB-free with a special remote control, the device may actually have a future. For example–what better alarm clock than a hefty nasal burst of the smell of seriously burning bacon? That’d get you leaping out of bed. And when tethered to a computer playing some sort of first person-shooter game, the aromatic possibilities of the consequences of fragging a bunch of aliens is literally (and possibly thankfully) beyond imagining.