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Smell-Based User Interfaces Are Here

“Smell has a tremendous potential for AR and VR applications,” says Niklas Roy.

Thanks to the structure of the human brain, scent is incredibly evocative. Your olfactory cortex–the part of the brain that processes smell–is part of the the same system that stores your emotions and memories. This is why catching a whiff of certain aromas–perfume, for example–can trigger very specific memories. It’s also one of our most underestimated senses: A recent neuroscience study found that humans’ sense of smell rivals that of dogs’.

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Increasingly, artists and designers have been exploring the creative potential of scent as a branding tool, as an avenue to amp up experience-driven artworks, and as a medium to better understand cities. Recently, a group of ÉCAL interaction design students completed a project called Bouquet that attempts to replicate the phenomenon of synesthesia, where senses are crossed, with color and smell. The device is emblematic of a recent interest in developing sensory substitution technology.

[Photo: courtesy ÉCAL]
In a workshop led by Berlin-based designer Niklas Roy, a group of ÉCAL students including Erika Marthins, Arthur Moscatelli, Pietro Alberti, and Andrea Ramìrez Aburto created a cone-shaped device that is fitted with an optical sensor on one end and emits aromas on the other. Inside, there’s a rotating disc that contains four different essential-oil soaked cotton swabs. After placing the sensor over a color, the device rotates the disc so that the corresponding color’s scent is exposed to the user. The students also designed a four-color poster to use along with the device and picked the aromas to correspond with the hues. For example, red is paired with strawberry and blue is coupled with an oceanic aroma.

Roy describes this device as a type of augmented reality and believes synthesized scent is an under-explored user interface.

“Smell has a tremendous potential for AR and VR applications, as it addresses our emotions so directly,” he tells Co.Design via email. “Most of the existing devices [that synthesize smell for VR] are experiments than products, as the technology is really in its first stages. Synthesizing precise olfactory sensations is a lot more complicated than producing 3D images or sound.”

Indeed, designers have gotten pretty good at replicating 3D sound and designing lifelike VR imagery. Perhaps the secret to truly immersing us in a virtual beach-y escape is actually in the nose.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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