Ever Wanted to Use Your Phone to Send a Smell?

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LET'S SAY we're talking on the phone. I'm having dinner by the Mediterranean. You're in your office in a landlocked American city. "Can you smell the sea?" I ask. "Yes," you say. "It's almost like being there." And because the evocative power of smell is so strong, that's almost true. Just such experiences are being promised by a new project from Le Laboratoire, a Paris-based center of art, design, and science developing what's called the OPHONE. The idea is to communicate scents much the way we communicate sounds and sights: by using our smartphones. An app connects to a pocket-size device that's able to capture smells and break them down into their components—a sort of olfactory alphabet—then transmit them to another device thousands of miles away, where they are reconstituted. A fairly simple prototype limited to coffee smells is being demonstrated already at an exhibition in Paris. Harvard professor David Edwards, the founder of Le Laboratoire, expects to have more advanced models by next year, when he opens an art-science laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Fully commercialized OPHONEs are probably something for later in the decade. But, already, you can smell the possibilities.