Sunday, May 24, 2009

Olfactory peripherals: This smells a bit familiar...

There were a few links around the web last week mentioning a research project out of University of Birmingham called "Scent Delivery System" or SDS. The researchers claim to have developed a system that allows some games (in their case, HL2 and Farcry mods) to deliver scents to the player after hitting certain trigger points. 

Some game sites linked to this as if to say "look what's right around the corner" (the researchers claim it could be gaming reality 2-3 years from now) and others to say "not so much".

Anytime there is new tech proposed, of any kind, there are enthused supporters and - usually outnumbering them ten to one - naysayers. As a general rule they are both wrong. The tech usually becomes feasible at some point, way beyond when the supporters claimed, and far enough out that the naysayers can claim they didn't beleive in it happening... then.

What surprised me about this round of 'smell-o-rama' write up was two things:

First, that the writers discussed how it could enhance realism, but none of the articles I saw discussed how it might enable new modes of gameplay. (Actually, I guess that shouldn't suprise me, but it disappoints a bit).

Second, that none of the write-ups discussed that we've been here before. About eight or nine years ago, a company called Digiscents was showing a prototype device and SDK at GDC (2001, IIRC). I got to play some of the game demos with the prototype and while I was skeptical for a bunch of reasons, I was still impressed. Many people think Digiscents' demise was an indication of the market's reaction to their tech, but I don't think we'll know, since the dot-com implosion dried up much of the venture funding at that time too.

But this post isn't about Smell-o-rama for games, and whether or not that could or should happen. 

My first point here is that when looking at new forms of technology, whether it be olfactory peripherals or the iPhone or whatever, and not asking "will it work with todays games?", though that might help deployment, but rather we should be asking "what has not been possible in games, that perhaps now can be?"

My second point is that like in other things, we should learn from history. Whether it be history of a particular piece of tech like in this case, or general models learned from elsewhere in history of technology deployment. 

[Update: Here's a great archived post from Internet Retailer from March of 2001 on Digiscents, their deal with RealPlayer to add scent to web pages, their deal with P&G. Ah... the bubble. :-)

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