If the digital age has increased the volume of communication, it may not have improved the quality. Reversing that trend is the goal of a new generation of sensory engineers who are going beyond sight and sound to produce devices that use our untapped faculties. Perhaps the most exciting breakthroughs right now are arriving in the form of smell-centered communication.
Dr. David Edwards, biomedical engineer at Harvard and founder of Le Laboratoire, known for producing radical sensory devices such ascalorie-free chocolate spray says their motto ‘aroma tells a thousand pictures. Every human has thousands of distinct smell sensors, Edwards explains, a resource he taps with his newest invention the oPhone.
The phone is set to be launched in July, it offers the most sophisticated smell messaging yet created. In collaboration with Paris perfumers Givaudan and baristasCafé Coutume, Edwards has created a menu of scents, contained in ‘Ochips’. MIT electrical engineer Eyal Shahar designed containers for them that release when heated by the touch of a button, but cool quickly to keep smells distinct and localized, a historic difficulty with the much-mocked smell-o-vision experiments in cinema.
Mix and match
The oPhone user can mix and match aromas and then send their composition as a message, which will be recreated on a fellow user’s device. Up to 356 combinations will be possible in the first wave, rising to several thousand in the next year, and the dream is an exhaustive base — the ‘universal chip’.
“Biologically we respond powerfully to aroma, so if we become familiar with the design of aromatic communication we might be able to say things we couldn’t before”, says Edwards. He sees the limited aromas of the oPhone as the first letters of a rich new language, that may be used as a basis for novels and symphonies. The faith is grounded on the acknowledged influence of smell on the subconscious, and the potential to learn its secrets.
The first oPhones will be limited to a select community of coffee enthusiasts. But the launch on July 10 will be accompanied by a more inclusive product: the first olfactory social network