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Why Google Maps Shouldn’t Forget About Smell

Researchers find that humans can navigate through smell alone–so why are we so dependent on screens?

Why Google Maps Shouldn’t Forget About Smell
[Photo: Flickr user Matt Baume]

Rats can create rich smell maps to find their way around the environment. Researchers have long known that. Less obvious: Humans, too, can navigate their world through smell alone, as a new study from UC Berkeley shows. So why aren’t more of our user interfaces tapped into our noses?

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Photo: Flickr user Nick Page

The study, published in PLOS ONE, found that humans are actually able to sniff their way blindfolded and eargplugged to a destination they’ve smelled only once before. We have what the study calls an “olfactory positioning system,” or a GPS for smells.

The researchers ran participants through an odor grid of sorts. A 25-foot-by-20-foot room was set up with a perimeter of sponges. Two sponges were infused with different aromatic oils. Subjects were placed at one spot in the room, then spun around, disoriented, and asked to find their original spot again, using only their nose. Thirty-two of the 45 participants found their way about 30% (or 5 feet) closer to their original starting points than they could without using their sense of smell.

Photo: Flickr user iamNigelMorris

Researchers conclude that, while we don’t use smell to navigate long journeys, we do use it to help navigate small areas. We can both record an object in our brain by its smell and sense what researchers call a “smell gradient” across a space, making “olfaction an ideal sensory modality for navigation,” the study says.

Yet our existing mapping systems–like Google Maps–are based almost entirely on following the directions of what we can see. We see a city grid, we see street names, we see instructions to turn left. Even the next wave of navigational UI tends to focus on vibrational haptics in products, like the Apple Watch, that play to our sense of touch. Again, these haptics point you left or right. They’re playing on our ability to follow directions, rather than leveraging or reinforcing a mental map we may already have.

But it turns out, we can perceive and make decisions based upon a whole layer of more subtle, primal cues, and if we could tap into them, we could access a level of human navigation that we never even knew existed. Is a smell-laced Google Maps around the corner? Probably not. But the study is a reminder that the user interfaces we rely on today may be overlooking important senses.

Read more here.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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