A Real Tech Bubble: Read–And Smell–Social Media Updates On These Info-Bearing Spheres

Forget push notifications. Try a bacon-scented bubble.

A Real Tech Bubble: Read–And Smell–Social Media Updates On These Info-Bearing Spheres
[Image: Flickr user Jeff Kubina]

A Chrono-Sensory Mid-Air Display system may sound insanely high tech, but it’s just a complicated way of saying “bubble machine.” A very special bubble machine, called “SensaBubble,” designed by computer scientists at the University of Bristol. “We wanted to create an ambient floating display that provides information in a more subtle way,” says Dr. Sue Ann Seah, a post doc in the department and lead author the SensaBubble study.


When you need to be reminded about a meeting or to know that your mom called, it can be much easier on the eyes and brain to see a bubble float by than having to toggle between multiple windows and devices.

How SensaBubble Works

SensaBubble uses an electric bellows, which sweeps up a solution of dish soap, water and glycerine. Once full, the bellows “puffs” out bubbles between five and 12cm in diameter. A smoke machine inside the SensaBubble device fills the bubbles with scented smoke, which is released into the air when a bubble is popped. Dr. Seah’s team also programmed an XBox Kinect to track circular objects, which allows a projector to display graphics on the bubbles as they float.

Beyond Bubble Bath

The SensaBubble has many practical applications, according to the Bristol team. Each person in your address book could be assigned a specific scent. “You could have the smell of your mom’s cooking–like lasagna. Or bacon for your brother. Or your girlfriend’s perfume,” says Dr. Seah. Then, when you pop a bubble with a Gmail or Facebook icon projected onto it, you’ll know who contacted you. Or, if you’re in the bedroom and you suddenly smell bacon wafting in from the hall, you’ll know that your brother wants to get in touch. Either that, or breakfast is ready.

Bakeries and perfume shops could use SensaBubbles to attract customers. And there’s educational potential too. In elementary school math, a teacher could project numbers onto bubbles and have kids add or subtract by bursting the correct digits. “There could be a nice smell if you got answer right and pungent smell if you got it wrong. Like oranges or smelly socks,” says Seah.


Are Bubbles the Future?

Seah says that right now, the SensaBubble machine is mostly about proving a concept. There’s also just one of them. But the materials are all off-the-shelf. The most expensive part of the apparatus is the high-quality projector. If you can hack a Kinect, Seah estimates that you could make your own bubble machine for about $1,000.

The team’s next project is to connect the machine to Twitter, so that bubbles are created in response to tweets. They’d also like to create much bigger bubbles–in the 30 to 50 centimeter range, so that large-scale images and video can be projected onto them. But if all of this sounds a little silly, don’t burst the scientists’ bubble just yet. “I’ve made 2,000 bubbles so far and I’m still not sick of them,” says Dr. Seah. “You can play with them for hours.”

About the author

Jennifer Miller is the author of The Year of the Gadfly (Harcourt, 2012) and Inheriting The Holy Land (Ballantine, 2005). She's a regular contributor to Co.Create.