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Your smartphone might soon be able to identify scents and flavors

Do you have bad breath? In a couple of years' time, your smartphone might just be able to warn you, with smelling and tasting tech being developed by San Francisco startup Adamant.
January 27, 2013
Smartphones smell taste

Ever heard of a mobile phone that can smell or taste? We haven’t either, although we’re very much aware that mobile devices today can already “see” and “hear” you through cameras and microphones. Phones can now even “feel” your touch, since touchscreen-enabled devices are increasingly becoming popular, and are beginning to edge out those with physical keypads.

But in the future, our smartphones might be able to smell and taste us, with new sensors being developed by smartphone manufacturers. IBM actually predicted that in five years’ time, our mobile devices will be able to mimic the five senses: touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell. This technology might just be around the corner.

For one, Adamant Technologies, a San Francisco-based startup, is developing a mobile chipset that “can take the sense of smell and taste and digitize them.” According to Adamant CEO Sam Khamis, their system uses a combination of about 2,000 sensors to identify scents. This is even greater than the approximately 400 sensing nerves in the average human nose. To put things in perspective, a dog’s nose has about 2,000 sensors, which makes the Adamant-developed chip more sensitive than the average human — perhaps good enough to sniff for specific scents like dogs.

In bad taste (and breath)

Humans have one inherent advantage, though. While computer sensors can easily detect specific smells like chemicals or smoke,  these might have difficulty identifying combinations, like hot pizza and cookies baking in the same kitchen, for instance. But there are practical applications that Adamant is hoping to satisfy in the next couple of years. Chief among these is detecting bad breath.

“Halitosis, or bad breath tracking, is something we’re really interested in,” quips Khamis, saying it’s something that even your closest friend might have trouble telling you about. But once your smartphone can detect you’re not exactly pleasant smelling while you’re talking, then you’re bound to listen.

Adamant says the technology is far from perfect, and that they’re likely to release a product in the market in two years’ time. First among these will be a plug-in accessory to smartphones (initially the iPhone), which will sell for $100. Khamis says that once the device is out, it will not only tell you that you have bad breath, but will actually be able to point out the origin of your condition through the included mobile app.

Medical apps

Going beyond bad breath, though, a smartphone that can identify scents will have a multitude of other applications that may have  a bigger importance in the community. For instance, authorities will be able to use smartphones as substitutes for the usual Breathalyzer, which can help identify not only whether a driver is intoxicated, but what substance he or she is currently under the influence of.

In the medical field, a “smelling” smartphone may be able to monitor blood sugar, for diabetic patients’ maintenance. Healthcare facilities will be able to detect airborne infectious material (viruses, bacteria) in real time. Even in mundane everyday things, this will also work. Adamant foresees a calorie-tracking app, which can track metabolism in real time.

Or it can be as simple as making everyday lifestyle suggestions that might come in handy for us, smartphone users. Next time we hold our phone against our ear, our phone might discreetly say: “You need a shower!”