We live in an increasingly deodorized world. In recent years, laws have been passed prohibiting "offensive" body odor in public spaces such as libraries, as well as policies that ban the wearing of scented products or perfumes to work. Some office employees are not even allowed to bring "smelly" food to work.
A sudden spate of scented technologies promises to reverse the trend by simulating scents for consumers. Although scented technologies have been derided as gimmicks, failing in both the smell and technology categories, they're proof that something is literally in the air - and it might even smell like roses emanating from a wristwatch to tell you that it's 3 o'clock.
Aisen Caro Chacin, a physical computing lecturer at the New School in New York, is developing a watch called the Scent Rhythm that allows you to tell time based on your circadian rhythms or "internal body clock." Every six hours, the Scent Rhythm would emit a time-appropriate scent (along with a complementary supplement) to help with that portion of the day's activities - for example, the scent of coffee supplemented with caffeine in the morning, or chamomile scent and valerian root in the evening to aid in sleep. Although its practical uses (as an airborne medicine dispenser or to help those with circadian disorders) are still being explored, the Scent Rhythm promises an interesting alternative to telling time.
The Madeleine, named after Proust's evocative cookie, is designer Anne Radcliffe's prototype for what she calls an "analog odor camera." Inspired by headspace technology pioneered in the 1970s by Swiss chemist Roman Kaiser to capture, analyze and reproduce scent molecules for use in perfumes, the Madeleine would bring that complex and expensive technique to the individual consumer. Just as the Kodak Brownie camera produced a generation of amateur shutterbugs in the early to middle 20th century, the Madeleine could create a new generation of "scentographers" who capture the smells they encounter during their day that can later be processed by a lab and turned into a scented liquid snapshot. Although Radcliffe's prototype, which was an award-winning graduate project at London's Central Saint Martin, is still but a twinkle in the designer's eye, she believes it could change our relationship to smell. "[Our] olfactory sense," she has said, "could take on a much more conscious role in the way we consume and record the world."
The Scentee from Japan is one of the new scented technologies that is commercially available. This smartphone app alerts you to text messages or Facebook notifications not with the familiar auditory ping, but rather with a puff of scented vapor that comes from an attachment you plug into your phone. Replaceable scent cartridges can be added or removed from the attachment in scents such as jasmine or vanilla, or herbs such as lavender or mint. If you're really daring, you can be alerted by food scents, including rice or barbeque pork. The Scentee is still a little clunky: Not only do you have to have the attachment plugged in, but you might also might need to have the phone right under your nose.
More sophisticated (and ambitious) is the oPhone ("o" for "olfactory"). Developed by Harvard engineering professor David Edwards, along with his students Rachel Field and Amy Yin and a handful of designers and artists at Le Laboratoire think tank in Paris, the oPhone, in its realized state, will allow users to send the scent equivalent of sentences and paragraphs, thanks to oChips that can produce hundreds (and eventually, thousands) of odor signals. The sequencing could create a new language of the nose. The oPhone will be commercially available this fall.
For Edwards, this recent proliferation of scented technologies has two drivers: Information overload of the visual and auditory kind, and a scarcity of olfactory messages. "The communication revolution of the past 20 to 30 years," says Edwards, "saturated and inundated us with visual and auditory information. This comes at the exclusion of an important sense that characterizes a great deal of information we decipher in real living, olfactory information. This may be one of the reasons we see an increasing interest in smell today, because it's magical, sensual, non-quantifiable and, perhaps, reassuring. We're missing this olfactory dimension in the age of virtual reality."
Scented technologies have their detractors. Anti-tech folks see these technologies as part of an ongoing effort to alienate us from enjoying an unmediated relation to reality. (Stop and smell the roses on a rosebush, they would say, not the simulated rose scent puffing from your phone.) And then there are the tech purists who seem to measure the devices only in terms of their conventional utility. Describing an early scented technology that lost funding, the 2001 Digiscents' iSmell, which was supposed to connect to your PC's USB port to provide an olfactory dimension to the Internet experience, a writer for Complex.com named it one of the 50 worst fails in tech history, claiming, "[We] can't see why anyone would need one of these...Fatal flaw(s): Ridiculous concept."
But perhaps rather than seeing attempts at adding scent to technology as a sign of our separation from reality, or complaining that they don't fulfill an urgent need, we should see these efforts as a rapprochement between technology and smell, and a triumph for our olfactory sense that some would repress. Free your nose and your mind will follow.