A new kind of tech bubble

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter

media captionA new kind of tech bubble

We've heard a lot lately about the bursting of the tech bubble, but scientists at Bristol University believe their bubble technology could have a profitable future.

Their system for producing bubbles onto which images can be projected and which release a scent when burst will be unveiled at a major conference on human-computer interfaces this weekend.

The video demonstration of what is described as a "chrono-sensory mid-air display system" shows how bubbles of varying sizes can be created, then tracked so that images can be projected on them.

The man leading the project is Professor Sriram Subramanian from the computer science department at Bristol, for whom I have one nagging question - what on earth have bubbles got to do with human-computer interfaces?

He explains that his team's primary interest is in different kinds of display surfaces for information. "We are interested in creating new and exciting experiences for people. Think about your laptop or phone - you can't put your finger through the screen." Whereas his bubbles deliver short-term messages which disappear when popped but leave behind a longer term scent.

The technology has already attracted interest from shopping malls. The professor imagines a future where a bakery chain releases bubbles containing the scent of sausage rolls to entice people into their stores - although it sounds to me as though that could turn into an olfactory nightmare, with different scents competing for shoppers' attention.

Another idea involves an educational use. "There's an iPhone game which involves bursting bubbles to learn maths - we could project numbers onto different bubbles, so the children would have to burst the right bubble."

He also sketches out ideas for what he calls an ambient notification system - for instance, a bubble that would float around your office every now and then with a number showing how many unread emails are in your inbox. "You could go even further. If we encode each category of email with a different scent, the smell would tell you vaguely how many emails you had from family as opposed to work-related ones."

The SensaBubble, as it has been named, will be unveiled in Toronto at CHI2014, a conference of scientists working on new interfaces between computers and humans. The conference's preview video gives some idea of the breadth of new ideas emerging, as researchers look beyond the traditional model of keyboard, screen and mouse. And you can see more of the Bristol team's work in this area on their YouTube channel.

Professor Subramanian describes how a visit to a Disney theme park involves a lot of interaction with technology but "you almost never notice the technology, it's such a fun experience". This is the new frontier for computer science - making our interactions with machines such fun that the technology just disappears.