At 11:31 EDT on Tuesday, an email message encoded with the scent of Paris, winged its way across the ether to land in the inbox of a Harvard professor waiting eagerly in a skull-littered basement room in New York’s American Museum of Natural History.
The onote, as such scent-embedded mail is known—originated at Le Laboratoire in Paris as a picture of a plate of macaroons and a glass of champagne, and was tagged via an iPhone app called oSnap, with the elements—tropical fruit, cocoa beans and champagne—that comprised their aroma.
When played on an oPhone—the device designed to decode scent-embedded messages—the aroma was, well, undeniably smelly, if a tad muddled. A hint of chocolate was there; something sort of fruity came through; the champagne would have been hard to detect without knowing what to smell for. Did it evoke wine and cookies? Not really. But, to its credit, the gadget worked.
“When you play all three scents at once, it’s sometimes hard to determine what you’re smelling,” says David Edwards, Harvard professor of idea translation and co-inventor of the device with Rachel Field, a former Harvard student.
While potential users can currently download the app for free from the Apple app store, there’s no way yet for them to play their aromatic missives without going to an oPhone-equipped hotspot. Starting on July 12, and continuing for three consecutive weekends, the museum will host a hotspot in New York where people can come and retrieve the onotes they’ve been sent. There will be other hotspots in Paris and Cambridge, with more to come.
Since tagging photos with scent is a skill that few people have yet mastered, the museum will also host free “scent adventures,” where an olefactorially-skilled expert — a chef, a coffee connoisseur, or a chocolatier, for example —- will coach aroma newbies in how to compose a scent that resembles what they’re smelling. The app itself comes with a vocabulary of “notes"—green vegetation, grilled bread, onion, jasmine, cedar, for example—that allows users to compose more than 300,000 different scents.
While Edwards envisions his invention being a boon to businesses where scent is important, the early response to his product has shown interest in unexpected areas. Instead of tagging pictures of food, the first users tagged pictures of beaches, gardens, and one evocative picture of a fat man with a baby resting on his belly, tagged “meaty.”
Scent aficionados will eventually be able to send their smelly pictures via Facebook and Twitter, as well as email. “Since your nose loses its sensitivity to scent after a relatively short period, it’s better for an aroma to be detected in the short term,” Edwards says. “Your nose is made for olefactory Tweets.”
For its part, the museum is enthusiastic about the potential for using scent as part of the visitor experience. “The sense of smell is driven by a powerful and intricate biological system that has evolved over millions of years,” says Michael Novacek, the museum’s provost for science.
Over the years, humans have traded olefactory sensing for better vision, but while we’re less adept at sensing various aromas than, say, dogs or gorillas, we’re still able to discriminate between millions of different olefactory stimuli. That presents rich possibilities for enhancing exhibitions—or just triggering memories.
“In humans,” Novacek says, “the olfactory bulb is part of our brain’s limbic system, which is closely associated with memory and feeling.”
That’s why, like the taste of Proust’s Madeleine, a momentary whiff of a scent can bring on a rush of powerful memories and emotions.
The technology behind the platform is still in development, and is being funded, at least in part, by an indiegogo campaign. Sign up by June 19, and for $149, you get an ophone Duo (with two scent receivers; an “Uno” model for your pocket will come later), a pack of “foodie” chips and a pack of base notes.