On Tuesday morning, at Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History, Harvard Professor and CEO of Vapor Communications, David Edwards, will hit the send button on his iPhone, and an email photograph tagged with the quintessential smell of New York—Pizza? The halal food trucks on 6th Avenue? The stench of horse piss on Central Park South?—will be delivered to a colleague in Paris, completing the first ever TransAtlantic transmission of a scent message.
The message, called an oNote, will be composed via an iPhone application called oSnap, soon to be available for free download in the Apple App store.
At Le Laboratoire, a contemporary art and design center in central Paris, Christophe Laudamiel, a perfumer and fragrance chemist, will download Edwards’s smell-o-gram via an oPhone, a device designed to decode tagged oNotes and render them into scents. Ledaumiel, in turn, will send a Paris-scent tagged message—champagne? Chanel No. 5? Steak au poivre?—back to Edwards and his co-inventor, Rachel Field, in New York, where the Museum’s own oPhone will decode and deliver.
It’s Edwards’s goal to have scent-tagged images available soon via email, Facebook, and Twitter within a network of hotspots in New York, Cambridge, and Paris that have iPhones capable of receiving them. "Scent is the world’s natural tweet, because it takes just a few seconds to get a scent," he says. "The notion of people saying, "I miss you in New York," by sending a scent is really interesting and powerful. Or imagine taking a scent selfie and posting it on Facebook."
The oSnap app enables the creation of scents through an aroma vocabulary, which appears via a scrolling window. There are 32 unique scents users can combine into some 300,000 permutations.
If, for example, Edwards decides to send his Parisian friend the smell of a New York pizza, he may tag the photo with the scents "tomato," "cheese," "pepper," and "onion."
The scent is then delivered via chips in the oPhone receiver similar to printer cartridges. When air is spun over them, the scent is released. The aroma is designed to last for about 10 seconds. If the photo is tagged with more than one scent, the scents will play in chronological order, so the phone has time to clear the previous aroma.
Initially, Edwards is focusing on foodie vocabularies. "In the near term, we’ll go where there are obvious business applications—places where the quality of aroma is associated with the quality of the product or experience," he says, like coffee or bread.
The company’s "coffee bliss" vocabulary, for example, will be tested with coffee customers at Coutume cafes in Paris.
On June 17, Vapor Communications will launch an Indiegogo campaign to finance production of the first commercial oPhones. They’ll be available for pre-sale, to be produced and delivered in early 2015, for a retail price of $149 (a 25% discount on the expected sale price of $199).
For its part, the Natural History Museum is intrigued by the technology’s potential to enhance exhibits and to educate visitors on the evolution of smell. Imagine, for example, a dinosaur exhibition infused with the scent of a Jurassic swamp—or the smell of a T. Rex.
The Museum will host a hotspot during three weekends in July along with hands-on activities about how smell is processed in humans compared to our primate and hominid relatives.
While inventors for years have tried to figure out how to transmit scent via email—the dream app for middle school boys who envision sending fart bombs in math class—the technology has never managed to overcome the peculiar challenges of scent; its tendency to linger in a space foremost among them.
In the late 1950s, Smell-o-Vision battled with AromaRama for domination of theaters. Both failed. More recently, Japanese, French, and Israeli companies have attempted to enter the market with a variety of devices, with little success.
But if anybody’s likely to find a way to commercialize aroma transmission, it may well be Edwards, a serial entrepreneur with a variety of intriguing projects on his bio. Edwards is the mad scientist who invented smokable chocolate, air-cleaning plants, edible food packaging, inhalable alcohol, and a cell bag for carrying water in developing countries.
Edwards, who holds the provocative title of Professor of Idea Translation at Harvard, is an engineer with the DNA of Willy Wonka. If this latest experiment takes off, he's ready for the follow-up: the world’s first oBook, a project he’s been envisioning for 17 years, that will come complete with a scent track that will let you smell the hero’s adventures as the story unspools.