Smell-O-Vision, Courtesy of Japan

“Smell-o-vision,” like the hover car, has long been a technological fantasy; everyone thought we’d have it by the 21st century, but nowadays we’re content with over-sized SUVs and HDTVs.

But the companies involved, including Matsushita and Sony Corporation, are promising not only smell, but 3D viewing from any angle and even touch.

The project, which includes other significant developments such as improved translation, is intended to make global information sharing easier. Japan’s government is calling the project “universal communication” and will most likely allocate $9 million to fund the work.

Researchers admit that while progress is being made on the 3D technology, touch and smell will be much more difficult to develop. Many current technologies for touch, such as electric stimulation, are currently being looked at.

Don’t go to Japan next month hoping to try one of these televisions out, though. The plan is to have these super-TVs commercially available by 2020.

While it may sound like just another sci-fi pipe dream, with all the advances in technology we’ve seen in the past twenty years, “virtual reality” TV doesn’t seem so far-fetched. We already have limited virtual reality systems available, and to merge elements of those with high-definition television and computer technology is only a matter of time and effort. Touch and smell, though, will be the real challenges.

Should these efforts meet success, it’s hard to imagine the impact virtual reality TV will have not only on watching football or a war drama (can you “feel” a quarterback getting sacked, or a soldier taking a bullet?), but also on interactive entertainment as we know it. Videogame companies will no doubt pounce on the new technology, adding smells and touch to already chaotic and immersive multiplayer FPSs and MMORPGs. We’ll be sure to laugh at Playstation 2 Dual Shock controllers as things of the past.

Of course, virtual reality TV would have much more practical uses. Reuters writes that medical students could perform simulated surgery. Military trainees could engage in combat on virtual battlefields modeled after real ones, vastly improving current simulations. Commercials could vividly illustrate driving a car or visiting a theme park. The average “viewer” might be able to explore other cities, cultures, or the moon and Mars.

But even if VR television is a success (and looking twenty years into the future now may not be any more accurate than it was in 1985), the limits to what can and can’t be done, touched or smelled are impossible to know now. It will no doubt be interesting to see if Japan can bring to life “smell-o-vision,” and possibly much, much more.

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