It’s hard not to marvel at something that allows you to watch streaming video and listen to music while tapping out a text message. But of all the enriching ways that smartphones have come to engage our senses, there’s one in particular that’s mostly been neglected: smell.
Well, if all goes according to plan, consumers will soon get a whiff of something called the oPhone. Actually, it’s not a phone, but rather a Bluetooth-connected cylindrical device that can be thought of as an extension of the flat, glossy phones users have grown accustomed to. With the latest prototype, smartphone users can send a text message with an attached "command" to the owner of an oPhone. The recipient's smartphone then wirelessly transmits the "command," or scent recipe, to his oPhone to generate. On a rudimentary level, individual smells, like a hit of cinnamon, can be delivered as olfactory treats. Over time, use of the techology can be expanded to more elaborate kinds of communication, like notifying the person on the other end that you’ve cooked his or her favorite dish or reminding someone about an appointment over coffee.
It can take a moment to wrap your head around the notion. That's why inventor and Harvard professor David Edwards and his design students have already sketched out a number of real-world scenarios for how this latest take on smell-o-vision could be seamlessly incorporated into the way people ordinarily consume media—and enrich the experience. Odors, for instance, can be synced with various forms of entertainment, in much the same way that soundtracks set the mood for actions taking place in movies. Along those same lines, songs, books and even video games can be composed as narratives based on smell. Through an accompanying app, oPhone users would then be able to download entire collections into a library of odor-enhanced media files. Other applications include having the device programmed to deliver aromatherapy in a timed, efficient manner. Research shows that certain scents, like lavender, may help induce more restful sleep.
Though he wouldn’t go into much technical detail, Edwards emphasized that his novel idea is possible thanks to a system he fine-tuned to release odors in a subtle, controlled manner that only the user can detect. “Most scent dispensing technologies, like air fresheners work fine and dandy for what they are meant to do, but the problem has always been that the particles disperse in a way that lingers, sticks to clothes and disturbs those nearby us and limits its use,” he explains. “What we’re creating here is a true form of communication in that an odor or a sequence of odors is discretely tailored for the end user.”
A message relayed to the oPhone is received by an internal computer that’s programmed to translate the coded commands into easily recognizable scent signals. Whirling mechanisms within the device generate a flow of air, which passes through a tubular chamber containing four distinctly scented cartridges that Edwards calls oChips. Strategically heating them in different patterns can produce as many as 300 distinct odors, similar to how various hues can be mixed to produce a specific color. “We started discovering during testing that some odors are subtle while others can be quite pungent and overwhelming,” Edwards says. “The biggest challenge was to develop odor recipes and to calibrate it so it wouldn’t produce smells people would interpret as toxic.”
Last summer, Edwards held an open exhibition called “Virtual Coffee” at his “Le Laboratoire” research faculty in Paris, where patrons were encouraged to drop by to sample this unusual technology. The testers, he says, were able to easily and accurately suss out aromatic hints of hazelnut, caramel and other varieties amid entire “symphonies of aromas” that the oPhone was able to whip up.
Since then, he has focused on making sure everything is in place for a consumer-ready version that’s scheduled to be released in the fall. For the cost of a standard smartphone (somewhere in the ballpark of $200 to $500), initial oPhone starter kits will feature two devices to enable two smells to be enjoyed simultaneously. The setup, he reasons, would make it so users can emulate familiar experiences such as the blended aroma of a cup of coffee that’s paired with gourmet bread. Meanwhile, replacing an oChip cartridge should cost only a few dollars. Edwards has also collaborated with the firm Paris Vapors to develop a line of odor-embedded books, movies and TV shows.
"I'm aware that whenever there's a new approach to doing things, it takes some getting used to," he adds. "My hope is that if the oPhone is at the table, counter, desk, it'll be easier to participate with."