Page last updated at 00:11 GMT, Saturday, 8 November 2008

Capturing the scents of warfare

By David Gregory
BBC West Midlands science correspondent

Soldier passes burning vehicle
Will troops be able to smell burning vehicles before reaching war zones?
Video games use realistic graphics and sounds to create virtual worlds. Now researchers in Birmingham are adding smells to the experience to prepare soldiers for war.

I'm walking along an Iraqi street. I can hear the sounds of a crowd somewhere in the distance.

The call to prayer echoes around as I move towards the still-burning wreckage of a bombed bus. The smell of charred rubber fills my nostrils.

But this is not Basra, this is an office on the leafy campus of the University of Birmingham.

I am visiting Professor Bob Stone, who is using video game technology as part of research sponsored by the Ministry of Defence.

The aim is to prepare soldiers for what they might encounter when first posted overseas.

“There’s a lot of reports coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan that when the troops get out there they’re completely overwhelmed by the sights, the sounds and certainly the smells," said Prof Stone.

So now he and his team are adding the whiff of authenticity to their computer training simulations.

Memories rekindled

They use a “Scent Palette” - a machine the size of a shoe box.

Each individual scent comes in its own pot and is loaded into the machine. Then, at the right moment, compressed air and a fan do the rest.

But these are not the sort of pleasant scents you might want in an air freshener.

For Afghanistan you might experience a mix of cordite, rotting vegetables, and spices. For a submarine simulation the smells include diesel, body odour and just a touch of sewage.

For my visit Mark Blyth, who spent nine years in the Royal Navy, is working the smells using a small laptop hooked up to the Scent Palette.

“Some of these smells are really authentic,” he said, adding that memories of when he had served in the Gulf had been rekindled.

“I found that very interesting.”

'Pungent technology'

At the moment the scents are sourced from America but the team hopes to create its own.

The American hospital smell, for example, is very different to the smell you might expect from an NHS hospital or an Iraqi one, so they would like to fine-tune some scents.

But could we see something like this plugged into a video games machine?

Prof Stone thinks it is possible in the next three to five years. It certainly does enhance the experience.

But after a morning wandering war-torn streets and trapped in the toilets of a submarine, I’d recommend you open a window.

This is pungent technology.

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