It wasn’t quite as Earth-shaking as Marconi’s 1901 cross-Atlantic radio transmission or Alexander Graham Bell yapping at this assistant on the first telephone call in 1876, but this week the 21st century got its inaugural transatlantic scent message. At the American Museum of Natural History in New York on Tuesday, the smell of champagne and chocolate wafted from the new “oPhone” in a message sent from Le Laboratoire art center in Paris.
Reports were mixed: a Bloomberg Businessweek writer described the smell disparagingly as “like the chocolate-bar scratch-and-sniff stickers of my childhood.” But for three weekends in July, the public will be able to try out the oPhone for themselves at transmission stations in New York, Paris, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The new technology is the co-invention of David Edwards, Harvard University and Wyss Institute Professor, with his former student Rachel Field. It works through a free app called oSnap, where you designate olfactory notes to go with an image to share. These are then relayed with the oPhones, two sleek, white cylinders that use 32 notes to generate 300,000 different scents. As Wired UK explained, the “oPhone is equipped with oChips, little cartridges that contain all of the scent information that disperse odours when air is spun over them.”
Initially, scents are concentrated on food (soon to include coffee), possibly because that’s where our refinement of artificial smell has been most perfected. It also has potential for the most practical purposes in the food and drink industries, where you may need to transmit a new product smell across vast distances.
Yet personal communication could be enhanced through scent messages (if your friends are nice). Michael Novacek, the AMNH’s senior vice president and provost for science, explained in a release that “in humans the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area closely associated with memory and feeling, and thus aroma and scent can be especially powerful for us.”
The art and science of scent was recently explored by the GhostFood project, where the smells of foods that may be lost to climate change were transmitted via a headgear apparatus. But the oPhone isn’t directly transmitting smells, just approximations based on user selections from the aforementioned menu of 32 notes.
The hotspots for the oPhone are now just at the AMNH, Le Laboratoire, and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but there are plans to expand; you can even preorder an oPhone through Indiegogo. Perhaps there’s an imminent future when new ideas for perfumes can be exchanged over text, the sharing of our realities in realtime a little more experiential. Then again, it may be just become another gimmick, like the Smell-o-Vision dreamed up for 1960s films — but as an experiment it does at least raise more questions about what our communicative future holds.
The oPhone hotspot will be available to the public at the American Museum of Natural History‘s Sackler Educational Laboratory for Comparative Genomics and Human Origins (Central Park West & 79th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) for three consecutive weekends starting July 12.