The world in 2013 is a very visual place. We are compelled to document every inane part of our days, updating our Instagram, Facebook, and Tumblr streams with questionably filtered photography of even more questionable subject matter. Our tastes and impulses are hyper-visual, which contributes, some say, to a flattening of experience, dulling what would otherwise be enriched by the input of our other senses.
For designer Amy Radcliffe, that’s a shame. Speaking with Co.Design, she explains that "we’re so snap-happy that amateur photography has become almost disposable." Her "Scentography" camera aims to introduce other sensory channels into the mix that would more vividly capture memories—namely, through smell.
The project, which was developed as Radcliffe’s master’s thesis at London’s Central Saint Martins College, promises to reproduce the precise aromas of our more intimate memories. It’s not for naught that the conceptual capturing device is dubbed the Madeleine, after the most memorable case of Proust’s involuntary memory theory. Echoing the so-called "episode of the madeleine," Radcliffe posits that smell "can trigger a response almost automatically, a little like deja vu, without us even thinking about it."
We all know the feeling—when a stray smell lingers in your mind, transporting you back to a unique experience. For me, the noxious odor of exhaust and burning asphalt recall summertime and Good Humor ice cream trucks. The salty brine of the seashore, on the other hand, brings to mind the time a crab caught my finger in its claw and the stinging sensation that followed. For others, the waft of Old Bay seasoning may conjure up visions of steaming and feasting on said crab.
"Our smell memory is incredibly subjective, meaning that reproductions of smell memories are going to be personal and bespoke," Radcliffe says. The Madeleine is a portable lab that records and archives smells and then (ideally) preserves the "smell memories" they yield in small, glass vials. The process of capturing the odor is simple: Just place the plastic dome over the object whose scent you want to extract, then attach an "odor trap" over the central mechanism. The unit is connected to the dome and trap via a set of tubes that suck the scents from the former to the latter.
For the time being, the project’s last stage—the reconstitution of scents in liquid form which is subsequently stored in capsules—remains speculative. Radcliffe envisions users sending off their scented samples to be "developed" and capsuled by the nearest lab. Customers will then receive a package by mail, including the vial of smell memory and its formula, etched on a circular gold disk. The last details are crucial to the project, the designer stresses. "I didn’t want the fragrances to be confused with perfume [because] they’re not to be worn, but instead to be experienced."