On Wednesday I talked about Professor Plum’s love of watching any cooking show she get access to on our TV. In the process it may have become obvious that TV cooking enthuses her more than it does me. It’s not that I don’t enjoy watching TV cooking and it certainly provides useful tips and inspiration, but, at the end of the day, cooking on TV will always fall down on actually giving what you really want from anything cooking related: a chance to eat it. As an audio-visual medium TV kind of misses out on a lot of what’s important about food.

Without the ability to cook just what is made on TV and taste it as they do, the nearest possibility as far as I can see would be to broadcast cooking shows with some sort of Smell-o-vision. It wouldn’t be quite the same as tasting the food on offer, but, given that smell accounts for a huge amount of what we perceive as flavour, it would give a pretty good sense of it. If Smell-o-vision was on offer I’d definitely be more excited to watch the next series of MasterChef. So, just how likely is it that we’ll be getting smells on our small screens any time soon?

During the first boom in popularity for 3-D as a movie gimmick, Smell-o-vision was originally developed in 1960 for the lightweight Elizabeth Taylor film Scent of Mystery (“First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927)! Now they smell!” enthused the tagline with a touching feeling that this was an equivalent moment). The idea was that specially equipped cinemas would use a mechanism to release appropriate scents at the right moment to match what was on screen.

The concept was a complete failure, the mechanism didn’t work, it was noisy, some audience members didn’t smell anything, others found the smells didn’t waft their way until after the appropriate point on screen and then would linger for ages. When the film was released without Smell-o-vision audiences and critics were left wondering at how, much like the way things are constantly moving toward the camera in a 3-D film of the era: “the film acquired a baffling, almost surreal quality, since there was no reason why, for example, a loaf of bread should be lifted from the oven and thrust into the camera for what seemed to be an unconscionably long time“.

When the film aired on MTV in the 80s it did so with accompanied scratch and sniff cards for viewers to use when the right moment came up and this has been the method for the rare few attempts at something like Smell-o-vision since Scent of Mystery‘s failure. Most recently, a couple of years ago director Robert Rodriguez (not the first time he’s appeared here) used something called “Aromascope”, essentially an updated scratch and sniff card, for the “4-D” fourth installment of his Spy Kids series.

In fact, using this sort of method has already resulted in at least one instance of  TV cooking show bringing smells to a home audience. Last month in America TV chef Rachael Ray used scratch and sniff cards provided in magazines to give her audience a “Smell-o-vision” experience of her show. But is there a possibility of going beyond scratch cards? Are we going to get real Smell-o-vision on our home TVs?

Perhaps surprisingly it might not actually be far off. Earlier this year Haruka Matsukura of Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology demonstrated a “smelling screen” at the IEEE Virtual Reality Conference in Florida. The screen works by using gel pellets, which are vapourised into air streams across the screen. These can be directed so that the odour seems to be coming from any specific point or object on the screen. They are currently developing smell cartridges to change the potential screen smells. Who knows, it could be sooner than you think before Smell-o-vision makes a proper come back.

Perhaps, though, all it really needs is the power of suggestion. In 1965 the BBC played an April Fool’s prank claiming that a scientist had discovered a way to break scents down into their component parts and transmit them in the TV signal. Placing things like coffee beans and onions into the “Smell-o-vision machine” and asked viewers to report whether they could smell things. Huge numbers called in to say that they could, even saying the onions made their eyes water. If only Michel Roux Jr. claimed he had invented MasterChef Smell-o-vision then we might be able to get an extra sense of his food anyway.

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