Our sense of smell: an untapped dimension of modern communication?

Vapor Communications of Cambridge, Massachusetts has announced the launch of oMedia as part of its latest campaign to revolutionize how humans communicate.  As the company’s name suggests, its products target the olfactory system, employing a variety of scents to enhance user experience.  David Edwards, the Harvard professor and idea man at the helm of Vapor Communications, first got our attention back in November with his oPhone invention, a scent messaging device that can generate a whopping 300,000 unique smells.  His latest line of products, which includes the oBook, oSong, oClothing, and oPhone DUO, is equally smelly.

ophone Credit Joel Veak

The oPhone | Image credit: Joel Veak

With characteristic precision, Edwards explains in oMedia’s press release the primary motivation driving him and this emergent technology.  “Olfactory sensations trigger emotions and memories like no other sensations we have,” says Edwards.  But when developers of the past attempted to seize upon this notion in the form of, say, Smell-O-Vision, they failed time and time again on account of one simple problem intrinsic to smells: once emitted, smells tend to hang in the air.  A good thing, perhaps, if the smell is a pleasant one.  However, if the scene on your smell-o-telly suddenly shifted from a pigsty to a verdant Alpine field, residual odor might rock your overall experience.

So, how is Vapor Communications different?  Its small team of researchers, including master perfumer Christophe Laudamiel, believes they have harnessed the science to combat what Edwards calls the “hard-to-control diffusive nature of scent.”

The new oBracelet, for instance, carries scent-emitting disks or oNotes that a person can swap in and out and unlike perfume, the smell doesn’t stick to the skin.  Edwards likes to think of the oBracelet much like an iPod and its multitude of scents, a music library reflective of a person’s individual tastes.  “[The oBracelet] remains near to me in the way a song on an iPod is my song,” says Edwards.  “I can have multiple wearable oNotes at the same time or change them out…[it] is the first illustration of what I think of as an olfactory logo.”

O BRACELET - 02-credit Claire Curt

The oBracelet | Image credit: Claire Curt

When I inquire about the scent-making process itself, chemist and perfumer Laudamiel, too, opts for a music analogy.  “Just like you assemble notes and themes to make music, we assemble notes to create a little story.”  He goes on, “A piano has 88 notes; my piano has 1300 or more notes.”

But what if I want to smell like a strawberry, I ask.  What is the process?  “I would ask first what kind of strawberry,” Laudamiel quips.  “Basically what facet and emotion would you like to produce with this strawberry scent,” he clarifies.  In any case, Laudamiel cannot simply pull ingredients from the fruit itself, as strawberry extracts would rot in a matter of hours.  Instead, he must chemically reconstruct the scent much like a painter would a landscape or human figure.  Again, however scientific the process, Laudamiel prefers to think of his work in more artistic terms, stating that it “is no more an art or a science than a music composer putting notes on paper.”

Goldilocks 1

The oBook | Image courtesy of Vapor Communications

Along with the oBracelet, Edwards’ company has developed the oSong and oBook, both of which can be experienced by the public starting today in various locations.  The first oSong ever composed will be shared at the exhibition Memory: Witness of the Unimaginable in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  And for those of you with a fondness for children’s literature, you can read the first oBook Goldilocks and the Three Bears: The Smelly Version at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City beginning April 18.

So, what’s next for Edwards and his team of innovators?  Imaginably, many more scent-tagged books, songs, and maybe a third iteration of the oPhone.  “We are the only company developing a broad platform to introduce scent as a major new dimension in digital communications,” says Edwards.  And perhaps one day, thanks in large part to his creativity and resulting inventions, scent will have a much greater place in how we communicate — maybe to the extent we’ll use scent as a metaphor just as naturally and frequently as we do music.