Nose job: smells are smart sensors’ last frontier | Reuters

My piece for Reuters about the technology of smell: Nose job: smells are smart sensors’ last frontier | Reuters. A video version is here.

Nose job: smells are smart sensors’ last frontier

SINGAPORE | BY JEREMY WAGSTAFF

Phones or watches may be smart enough to detect sound, light, motion, touch, direction, acceleration and even the weather, but they can’t smell.

That’s created a technology bottleneck that companies have spent more than a decade trying to fill. Most have failed.

A powerful portable electronic nose, says Redg Snodgrass, a venture capitalist funding hardware start-ups, would open up new horizons for health, food, personal hygiene and even security.

Imagine, he says, being able to analyze what someone has eaten or drunk based on the chemicals they emit; detect disease early via an app; or smell the fear in a potential terrorist. ‘Smell,’ he says, ‘is an important piece’ of the puzzle.

It’s not through lack of trying. Aborted projects and failed companies litter the aroma-sensing landscape. But that’s not stopping newcomers from trying.

Like Tristan Rousselle’s Grenoble-based Aryballe Technologies, which recently showed off a prototype of NeOse, a hand-held device he says will initially detect up to 50 common odors. ‘It’s a risky project. There are simpler things to do in life,’ he says candidly.

MASS, NOT ENERGY

The problem, says David Edwards, a chemical engineer at Harvard University, is that unlike light and sound, scent is not energy, but mass. ‘It’s a very different kind of signal,’ he says.

That means each smell requires a different kind of sensor, making devices bulky and limited in what they can do. The aroma of coffee, for example, consists of more than 600 components.

France’s Alpha MOS was first to build electronic noses for limited industrial use, but its foray into developing a smaller model that would do more has run aground. Within a year of unveiling a prototype for a device that would allow smartphones to detect and analyze smells, the website of its U.S.-based arm Boyd Sense has gone dark. Neither company responded to emails requesting comment.

The website of Adamant Technologies, which in 2013 promised a device that would wirelessly connect to smartphones and measure a user’s health from their breath, has also gone quiet. Its founder didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

For now, start-ups focus on narrower goals or on industries that don’t care about portability.

California-based Aromyx, for example, is working with major food companies to help them capture a digital profile for every odor, using its EssenceChip. Wave some food across the device and it captures a digital signature that can be manipulated as if it were a sound or image file.

But, despite its name, this is not being done on silicon, says CEO Chris Hanson. Nor is the device something you could carry or wear. ‘Mobile and wearable are a decade away at least,’ he says.

Partly, the problem is that we still don’t understand well how humans and animals detect and interpret smells. The Nobel prize for understanding the principles of olfaction, or smell, was awarded only 12 years ago.

‘The biology of olfaction is still a frontier of science, very connected to the frontier of neuroscience,’ says Edwards, the Harvard chemical engineer.

MORE PUSH THAN PULL

That leaves start-ups reaching for lower-hanging fruit.

Snodgrass is funding a start-up called Tzoa, a wearable that measures air quality. He says interest in this from polluted China is particularly strong. Another, Nima, raised $9 million last month to build devices that can test food for proteins and substances, including gluten, peanuts and milk. Its first product will be available shortly, the company says. For now, mobile phones are more likely to deliver smells than detect them. Edwards’ Vapor Communications, for example, in April launched Cyrano, a tub-sized cylinder that users can direct to emit scents from a mobile app – in the same way iTunes or Spotify directs a speaker to emit sounds.

Japanese start-up Scentee is revamping its scent-emitting smartphone module, says co-founder Koki Tsubouchi, shifting focus from sending scent messages to controlling the fragrance of a room.

There may be scepticism – history and cinemas are littered with the residue of failed attempts to introduce smell into our lives going back to the 1930s – but companies sniff a revival.

Dutch group Philips filed a recent patent for a device that would influence, or prime, users’ behavior by stimulating their senses, including through smell. Nike filed something similar, pumping scents through a user’s headphones or glasses to improve performance.

The holy grail, though, remains sensing smells.

Samsung Electronics was recently awarded a patent for an olfactory sensor that could be incorporated into any device, from a smartphone to an electronic tattoo.

One day these devices will be commonplace, says Avery Gilbert, an expert on scent and author of a book on the science behind it, gradually embedding specialized applications into our lives.

‘I don’t think you’re going to solve it all at once,’ he says.

Apple Pay day some ways off

A Reuters piece I wrote with two colleagues on Apple’s efforts to break the mobile payments logjam (and catch up with China and Africa). In the long run, of course, they’ll likely carve out a decent business, but it’s not as smooth as it might be, and the impression we got was that Apple was facing problems not only convincing partners to jump aboard, but to make sure the process was as Apple-like for consumers as possible.

It’s an interesting conundrum that Apple faces: pretty much everything they have to do now is about ensuring their gadgets interact with worlds they can’t control – from payments to cars.

Early days, but Apple Pay struggles outside U.S.

BY MATT SIEGEL, JEREMY WAGSTAFF AND ERIC AUCHARD

More than 18 months after Apple Pay took the United States by storm, the smartphone giant has made only a small dent in the global payments market, snagged by technical challenges, low consumer take-up and resistance from banks.

The service is available in six countries and among a limited range of banks, though in recent weeks Apple has added four banks to its sole Singapore partner American Express; Australia and New Zealand Banking Group in Australia; and Canada’s five big banks.

Apple Pay usage totaled $10.9 billion last year, the vast majority of that in the United States. That is less than the annual volume of transactions in Kenya, a mobile payments pioneer, according to research firm Timetric.

And its global turnover is a drop in the bucket in China, where Internet giants Alibaba and Tencent dominate the world’s biggest mobile payments market – with an estimated $1 trillion worth of mobile transactions last year, according to iResearch data.

Anecdotal evidence from Britain, China and Australia suggests Apple Pay is popular with core Apple followers, but the quality of service, and interest in it, varies significantly.

To use Apple Pay, consumers tap their iPhone over payment terminals to buy coffee, train tickets and other services. It can be also used at vending machines that accept contactless payments.

Apple Pay transactions were a fraction of the $84.5 billion in iPhone sales for the six months to March, which accounted for two-thirds of Apple’s total revenue.

TECH HITCHES

In Australia, where Apple Pay launched a month ago, payment machines supported by one mid-sized bank reported frequent failures.

“Bendigo Bank is experiencing some unforeseen technical issues in accepting Apple Pay payments at selected merchant terminals,” a spokeswoman for the bank told Reuters, adding that a lack of wider industry engagement in launching the service limited the lead time in testing the new technology.

Apple Vice President Jennifer Bailey said such experiences were premature and not representative. “Like any set of major technology changes, it takes time,” she said. “We want to move as quickly as possible, we push it as quickly as possible.”

Facing a slowing smartphone business, Apple has taken on the payments market hoping to add ways to make its devices more appealing, and more revenue streams. Apple takes a cut of up to 15 cents in the United States on every $100 spent.

While it has long mastered the supply chain for its mobile devices, the payments ecosystem has proved harder to control, and banks in other countries have reportedly negotiated lower transaction fees, contributing to its slow global roll-out.

Apple nearly doubled its R&D spending to more than $8 billion in 2013–15 as it pushed out a wave of new products including Apple Watch and Apple Pay, as well as upgrades to existing hardware devices and new services.

RESISTANCE

Apple has leveraged its huge U.S. user base to push Pay, but has met resistance in Australia, Britain and Canada where banks are building their own products.

“Payments in general is such a complicated system with so many incumbent providers that revolutionary change like this was not going to happen very quickly,” said Joshua Gilbert, an analyst at First Annapolis Consulting.

The upshot: Apple has rolled out Pay in a dribble, adding countries and partners where it can – Hong Kong is expected to be added next – resulting in an uneven banking landscape with users and retail staff not always sure what will work and how.

In Britain, for example, $14 billion was spent via contactless cards last year, according to Windsor Holden, a Juniper Research analyst. That makes it harder to persuade people to take the extra step on their smartphone for the same checkout convenience.

“You have over 86 million contactless cards in circulation, you have to persuade Britons to register their cards to the (Apple Pay) service when they can already use them to make a contactless payment,” Holden said.

In Australia, where more than 60 percent of all card transactions are through contactless cards, reception has also been muted. A spokesman for one large retailer said he had seen “very little uptake of the payment option” in his sector. He didn’t want to be named as he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

Diego Machuca, 32, banks with Apple Pay-holdout Commonwealth Bank, has an iPhone and is already “largely cashless”. He says Apple Pay is appealing, but he wouldn’t switch banks just to access that one feature. “Not over that. There’s too much work involved just for tap-and-go,” he told Reuters.

Three months after the China launch, users on online forums complained that using Apple Pay, even at popular fast-food outlets, was not as seamless as local services such as WeChat, Tencent’s messaging and mobile commerce phenomenon.

Nonetheless, Apple’s approach has spurred development in several markets where the mobile payments industry had previously not taken hold – giving it the jump on rivals Google’s Android Pay and Samsung Pay.

Android Pay only launched in the United States in March and in Britain last month for use on the latest model Android phones. Samsung Pay is available in three markets; China, South Korea and the United States.

(Reporting by Matt Siegel in SYDNEY, Jeremy Wagstaff in SINGAPORE, Eric Auchard in LONDON and Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)