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Bose for the Nose - Technologue

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 2/18/2015 Frank Markus

We car nerds know all about noise cancellation and enhancement. Dr. Bose worked out the math for his noise-canceling headphones on a Zurich-Boston flight in 1978, and car audio systems routinely use similar tech to generate sound waves of identical frequency and amplitude but out of phase to erase cylinder deactivation grumbles or enhance an engine's growl. Manipulating sound (and light for that matter) is a snap because sounds and colors are simple waves that are easily described by amplitude, phase, and frequency. Smell is the final remote sensory frontier to be manipulated. Because our noses can detect and distinguish millions of smells, each comprised of myriad molecules and compounds, the task of detecting and canceling them is complicated, er, myriad-fold.

Research

Enter brothers Lav and Kush Varshney. Lav, a researcher at my alma mater (the U. of Illinois), and Kush, who does research at IBM, have used knowledge gained in "teaching" IBM's supercomputer "Watson" to cook by identifying flavor compounds. The two think they've cracked the math to enable limited smell cancellation and generate a "white smell."

Illustration by Lasse Skarbövik

There are four ways of combatting odors: Mercedes-Benz's perfume dispenser seeks to mask or overpower competing smells; the box of baking soda in your fridge seeks to absorb them; scrubbers in factory smokestacks often oxidize or burn dangerous and smelly molecules; and products such as Febreze purport to eliminate them with chemicals that react with odor molecules to render them inert or imperceptible -- this is the Varshneys' approach.

Imagine an "electronic nose" optimized to detect in-car odors such as oily exhaust, diesel fumes, sewage, manure, and onboard flatulence.

The brothers started mapping smells by leveraging existing research that examines 143 chemical compounds using 18 different physical and chemical properties of their constituent molecules. These were cross-referenced with human ratings of 146 different smells, ranging from almonds to urine, as found in the "Atlas of Odor Character Profiles." This allowed the brothers to train an algorithm to predict the human ratings for any other compounds not in their multidimensional database. Based on these predictions, a second algorithm can select odors that should cancel those recognized by the first. They tried it on onion, sauerkraut, Japanese fermented tuna, and durian fruit odors with reasonable success, noting that a cancelation cocktail of 38 compounds successfully canceled all four. A concoction of between 30 and 40 broadly distributed compounds dispensed in equal intensity is typically perceived as "white smell."

A device capable of sensing and canceling any and all odors is impractical, but imagine replacing Mercedes' perfume bottle with a semiconductor "electronic nose," like those used to detect IEDs in Iraq but optimized to detect and analyze likely in-car odors such as oily exhaust, diesel fumes, sewage, manure, and onboard flatulence. A computer would then identify compounds with opposite physicochemical properties, and then some number of dispensers would spritz various compounds into the ventilation system to cancel the odor. These dispensers would use replaceable cartridges like those in an inkjet printer. And it wouldn't have to be limited to canceling smells. Want a booster spritz of new-car smell? How about an aroma-therapeutic whiff of some calming scent during rush hour or a revitalizing one three hours into a long trip?

Technologue Bose for the Nose© Provided by MotorTrend Technologue Bose for the Nose

IBM has filed for patents on the tech without announcing an application. This sure seems a logical next step for Mercedes' Air Balance package.

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