Digitising Smell: The Third Sense Is Coming to Your Phone

posted in: Media


By  / September 11, 2014 10:34 AM EDT


In an interview recorded to mark his birthday, Mel Brooks’ celebrated comic character The 2000 Year Old Man addressed what he considered to be the most worrying development in the modern world. His major concern was not, he explained, related to matters such as world peace or the erosion of individual liberty. “It’s something much more important than that,” he said. “Smell. They are taking our smells away; all of our own individual smells. They have a smell for everything today. Under the arms. Up the nose. In the crotch.” The consequence, he complained, was that “You don’t know who the hell you’re dealing with any more. You can’t tell the difference between men and women. You can’t tell who’s who. And that,” he concluded, “is no way to live”.

The 2000 Year Old Man was not noted for his insight or perception: he recalled having snubbed such figures as Moses and Jesus (“a thin lad who came into the store but never bought anything”) opting instead to worship “this guy called Phil”. His fears over the pervasiveness of artificial scent, however, are proving to have been a rare moment of prescience. To most of us, who have long taken for granted the computerised broadcasting of sound and vision, the idea of transmitting smells digitally still seems absurd. So much so that, when I informed friends that I had just taken delivery of a Scentee – a small device which enables its owner to send or receive aromas telephonically – they assumed it to be a joke.

The Scentee may not look like much. A miniature plastic globe, or dongle, it is a little smaller than a cherry tomato, and connects to the audio socket of a smartphone. Download the relevant app, and the device can be activated either independently, by the user, or remotely, when another Scentee owner gives it a call. The dongle glows blue and emits, in a delicate flourish that resembles the vapour from an e-cigarette, the fragrance from whichever chemical cartridge has been loaded into it. Available scents include bacon, short ribs, coffee and buttered potato.

The device was manufactured in Japan, inspired by the research work of Adrian David Cheok. The award-winning scientist, formerly head of Singapore’s Mixed Reality Lab, now has the title Professor of Pervasive Computing at London’s City University.

The Scentee is still a novelty in Britain; during a demonstration given in June, at the Natural History Museum, many children in the audience argued, with some urgency, that sales would increase considerably should the professor seek to develop a broader range of fragrances, such as camel fart.

The Scent Scientist

Cheok, 42, meets me at his HQ, a small laboratory at City University. An engaging and articulate man, dressed all in black, he looks more like a seasoned rock guitarist than a research scientist. He is accompanied by two of his PhD students, German-born Marius Braun, and Jordan Tewell, from Ohio. “I was especially impressed,” I tell Cheok, “when I dialled up the mashed potatoes.” (Hearing myself say this, I can’t help thinking the professor that, over the years, I have interviewed one man who has walked on the moon, and another who ate an entire Cessna light aircraft in Venezuela, and still this conversation feels as surreal as any I’ve had). “But what,” I ask him, “is the point of this technology? Is anybody actually using the Scentee?”

“Absolutely they are. Previously I was based at Keio University, in Tokyo. We were doing a big project on food media. I was collaborating with a friend, Koku Tsubouchi, who is an entrepreneur. We, the academics, maintained our focus on research, while his company developed a commercial product,” which, he says, became the first mobile device for producing smell. “Scentee,” he adds, “is a profitable company. They sell thousands of units a month in Japan.”

Cheok grew up in Adelaide, where he was born to a Malaysian father and Greek mother. He began his academic life in Australia as an electrical engineer, though it’s difficult to imagine him having considered devoting his life to so narrow and orthodox a discipline. You sense in him an unusual confluence of rigour, creative imagination, and just a little mischief. “I can see that this thing is fun,” I tell him. “But is it ever going to be more than a gimmick?”

Marius Braun plays a video that was filmed in the Mugaritz restaurant, close to the Basque city of San Sebastián. Andoni Luis Aduriz, head chef at Mugaritz (currently ranked sixth in the world by the British magazine Restaurant) has been collaborating with the inventors of the Scentee. He is famous for shocking and surprising his clientele. Diners are given no advance warning of the menu, whose 20 dishes seek to excite every sense, as well as stimulating emotion and memory.

The video from the Mugaritz shows customers embarking on the traditional first course, which requires each of them to prepare a broth by crushing herbs and spices in a mortar. Armed with a smartphone loaded with the Scentee app, a prospective visitor can simulate the grinding action by rotating the phone’s display, where an image of the bowl appears. As the ingredients appear to disintegrate, the Scentee emits aromas of black pepper, sesame and saffron. “The idea,” says Cheok, “is that you can virtually experience some of the food in the restaurant.”

The professor has also collaborated with the Kraft-owned meat brand Oscar Mayer to produce a bacon-scented alarm clock. Possibly sensing that this innovation may defy the traditional dynamic whereby an invention is created to meet a need, Oscar Mayer has produced an ambitious promotional video, a copy of which is in the lab. We look on as a young woman navigates a landscape of dry ice, dodging a hail of bacon rashers. Wearing a diaphanous low-cut gown which seems recklessly unsuited to these inclement surroundings, she caresses her torso with one hand, and brandishes a spatula in the other.

“At darkest midnight,” says a male narrator, against a sequence of erotic images that Ken Russell might have rejected as less than subtle, “the nostril’s north star awakes you.” The film ends with the woman waking to a working Scentee and the slogan: “Want your own bacon scent alarm?”

To which most of us would answer, “Probably not.” After all, the Teasmade – hugely popular in the 1970s – has all but died out and that, at least, had tea in it. It is, however, undeniably reassuring to learn that, should any of us find ourselves overpowered by the desire to own a bacon alarm, through Scentee we can at least get our hands on one.

Adrian Cheok at City University has been covering mixed reality, human-computer interfaces and wearable computers throughout his career. Adrian Cheok/Alamy
Adrian Cheok at City University has been covering mixed reality, human-computer interfaces and wearable computers throughout his career. Adrian Cheok/Alamy

If his hardware for the replication of smell is relatively sophisticated, Cheok’s prototype apparatus for simulating taste is somewhat more basic, not to say alarming. Marius Braun hands me a device that consists of a pair of metal prongs that are spring-loaded and look rather like a large clothes peg. The gadget is attached to a piece of circuit board and battery leads. “It’s only 40 milliamps,” Braun tells me, as he eases the prongs apart and invites me to place my tongue between them.

Sitting at a table, mouth open, wired up to the apparatus and waiting for the young German to press the switch, I’m reminded of a Bob Hope line from the 1940 comedy, Road to Singapore: “My mother told me there would be moments like these. How did she know?” The electrical current on the tip of my tongue produces a sharp taste, like lemon. Cheok says that the team are experimenting using different combinations of heat and amperage. They can replicate four of the five known tastes: sour, salty, bitter and sweet. (The fifth, umami, a savoury note akin to MSG, was officially discovered in 1908.)

Brave New Smells

Cheok began his career in computing at Mitsubishi Research labs in Japan. Subsequently, at the Singapore Mixed Reality Laboratory, he led a team of 100 researchers and students and produced highly-acclaimed work that placed recordings of three-dimensional human figures into mixed-reality landscapes: the results have been compared to the hologram effects employed by Star Wars director, George Lucas.

The professor’s work in transmitting touch via the internet currently takes the form of a plastic ring slipped over the finger. The prototype is impressively small, even if it couldn’t yet be mistaken for a desirable accessory. It vibrates whenever the wearer of an identical ring presses their own device. They could be in the next room or, wireless connections permitting, in Martinique. It’s a signalling mechanism that has obvious potential for connecting with lost children or, as the research team tell me, with residents in care homes whose other senses may be impaired. The ring represents the first stage of Cheok’s ambition to create a device which, as he puts it, “will allow people to give each other a virtual hug”.

The notion of being able to blend and disseminate smell and taste is not a new one. As early as 1884, the French writer J K Huysmans published his novel À Rebours (Against Nature) in which the main character owned a “mouth organ”, consisting of a keyboard connected to tubes leading to casks of liqueurs, enabling the player to compose, and consume, a kind of alcoholic symphony. Hotel rooms in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are equipped with a scent organ. Replicating such devices in the real world proved to be somewhat challenging.

In the 1930s, an American-Swiss scientist called Hans Laube developed a system for releasing fragrance into cinema auditoriums. Variations on his system, the first attempt at what is generally termed Smell-o-Vision, were tested in the late 1950s. Its most famous incarnation was in Michael Todd Jr’s 1960 cinema production Scent of Mystery, starring Peter Lorre and Elizabeth ­Taylor.

Laube’s invention, intended to have a humble supporting role at the movie’s premier, immediately occupied centre stage. Poor ventilation exposed patrons to a combination of odours including rose, seaweed, wine, peppermint, shoe polish and cordite. It proved too heady a cocktail for some guests, who were overcome by panic and nausea.

“This all-out attack on the sense of smell,” complained the New York Times, “assaults the nose as a mixture of paint thinner and dimestore perfume, and leaves a sweet, cloying scent reminiscent of an undertaker’s parlour.”

The history of what is usually referred to as digital scent technology is less than 20 years old. In 1999, a firm called DigiScents unveiled a device that allowed users to trigger a limited range of smells when they opened an email. Other companies, in Tokyo, San Diego and Tel Aviv, are reported to be close to achieving commercially viable smell technology in a form that can be incorporated into a surround sound system.

The Smellophone

In June, the Parisian design centre Le Laboratoire, founded and directed by Harvard’s Professor of the Practice of Idea Translation, David A Edwards, announced the imminent release of its oPhone DUO. Le Laboratoire claims that the system will ultimately be able to release 300,000 unique aromas. This device is essentially a sophisticated smell modem, with the capacity to blend multiple odours. While far more complex than the Scentee, which can only deliver one smell at a time, the Duo looks less like a mobile phone than something we might see on a dental hygienist’s tray, and will not be available until the spring of 2015.

The Scentee 'balloon', attached to the earphone jack of your smartphone, sprays the aroma of choice. Aire-freshener-like cartridges include scents of rosemary, lavender and coffee. Phil Sills for Newsweek
The Scentee ‘balloon’, attached to the earphone jack of your smartphone, sprays the aroma of choice. Aire-freshener-like cartridges include scents of rosemary, lavender and coffee. Phil Sills for Newsweek

I ask Edwards the question that recurs whenever the subject of computerised smell comes up: what’s the point? “We see several exciting areas of application,” he says. One of these ­concerns: “companies operating in an environment with a strong aromatic value.”

“Waste disposal?”

“People marketing coffee, or flowers,” Edwards explains. “If I am in a nice coffee shop in New York, I have the ability, while standing in line, to smell the notes of a coffee.”

This facility, he argues, can be of great assistance in “dialoguing with the barista”. That last phase might sound alien to some members of British café society, whose concept of barista dialoguing has yet to advance beyond such phrases as: “Milk and sugar?”

“There is so much that people can do with this,” Edwards says. “Smell is the ultimate tweet. Your nose is made for it. One of our investors is a big lover of dogs. They make films for your dog when you are away. So you can leave your dog watching a bird movie, say, but at the moment he can’t smell anything. Now we have the opportunity to communicate using smell across species.” Given the not-insignificant gulf between the aromatic preferences of the human and the dog – the one tends to favour rose, patchouli or vetiver, while the other has a penchant for fox excretia – I find myself hoping that this particular branch of the information super-highway will remain a one-way street.

Guests at a recent demonstration of the oPhone at Los Angeles’ Institute for Art and Olfaction agreed that the device is, as the Institute’s founder and executive director, Saskia Wilson-Brown puts it, “definitely functional. David took a picture of a Perrier can on the phone, assigned four scents to it using his app, and sent the ‘oNote’ to the machine, which released the scents over the course of about a minute. They were definitely perceptible.”

The Great Nose

The inconvenient truth about taste and smell is that they don’t operate quite like the other senses. The sensation of smell is produced by the stimulation of the olfactory bulb, a structure located in the forebrain.

“The thing about scent,” Cheok says, showing me a diagram of the skull, “is that our basic receptors are not working as they usually do. Eyes and ears measure frequency. Smell is more analogous to a sensor. With sound you can cut out 80% of the data and it will still sound OK. With smell, it has to be exactly right. Taste offers a similar challenge.”

The professor’s mission “is to merge the virtual world with the senses. The internet is ­rapidly moving from behind our desktop into the physical world of taste and touch, as well as smell.”

I took my Scentee down to James ­Craven, chief archivist for Les Senteurs, the specialist perfumiers in central London. Acknowledged as one of the great “noses” in the fragrance world, Craven is more accustomed to advising clients on the sophisticated notes in the products of master perfumiers such as Olivier Creed, widely regarded as the most distinguished living creator of scents. The House of Creed was established in 1760, since when its scents have been worn by figures including Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart, Michael Jackson, Prince Charles, Michelle Obama and both Elvises – Presley and Costello. (“I remember very clearly the first time I ever wore Creed,” Costello told me. “Because I had never previously had strangers coming up to me in the street and saying, ‘You smell tremendous’.”)

Craven looks a little uneasy as I load my dongle with Chinese short ribs. Asking this man to assess the Scentee is a bit like recruiting a Formula One champion to test-drive a milk float. He stands gamely in the line of fire. “OK,” he says, with a much higher intonation on the second syllable, as the first jet of fragrance strikes what the Oscar Mayer people would call the north star of his nostril. “That is definitely  . . . meat.”

“I own this equipment,” I tell him. “Are you envious?”

“Not to the point that is unmanageable,” he replies. “As it is designed at the moment, this looks more like a kind of a toy to me. At the same time I’m sure that this is something that can be refined and developed. I think the basic idea is very exciting.”

Etat Libre d'Orange's Fat Electrician is a man 'raised in the big air of Texas, his soft skin scrubbed by ears of wheat'. Etat Libre d'Orange
Etat Libre d’Orange’s Fat Electrician is a man ‘raised in the big air of Texas, his soft skin scrubbed by ears of wheat’. Etat Libre d’Orange


The only complex fragrance I have any knowledge about is Creed, mainly as a result of having met the parfumier on a few occasions.

“The psychological effect of these fine scents is on the wearer,” I suggest. “You definitely feel more confident when wearing, say, Creed’s Royal Water. [As well you might, at £180 a bottle.] It can feel, as one fragrance expert said to me, ‘like wearing armour’.”

“I have no doubt of that,” says Craven. “Some are aphrodisiac, some are relaxing. Some put you in a brisk frame of mind.”

Les Senteurs keeps a range of fragrances which include one called Sécrétions Magnifiques. “I’d be a bit wary,” Craven says, as he puts a sample on a testing strip. “There is an accord of sweat and blood in this,” he says. (And, according to Sécrétions Magnifiques’ distributors, a firm called Etat Libre d’Orange, “notes of sperm and saliva”.) “That smell,” I tell him, “really is feral.”

“But many do love it,” Craven says, as he uncorks an equally bracing scent with the name Fat Electrician.

Another London-based perfume expert, Michael Donovan, gave me a Gaultieri fragrance called “Narcotic Venus”. This is based on tuberose: a flower that single women, historically, were not allowed to pick in its native Mexico, for fear that its supposed erotic properties might have them ravished in the fields. Narcotic Venus, Donovan told me, is “not one to wear to the office”.

But it is a blushing virgin compared to “Complex,” a perfume by Englishman Michael Boadi. “Complex is so pungent and strong,” Donovan says, “that it feels as if your head is about to explode. To me it smells as though two people have been in a hotel bedroom for two days, in sweat-soaked sheets, and not gone out or opened the windows.” It’s a description that once it is in mind it’s difficult to shift, though the scent of Complex is perversely hypnotic.

“Does it sell?”

“By the bucket load.”

“Who to?”

“Mainly women.”

Piss and Biscuit

But is it possible that smell – whether naturally produced, or chemically simulated, as in the Scentee – really does have a psychological effect on the wearer; something that may lie beyond their ability to control? I consulted New-York-based author Avery Gilbert, a fragrance expert who is also a psychologist trained in neuroscience. Gilbert’s 2008 book What The Nose Knows: The Science of Smell in Everyday Life is a wonderful social history of scent, elegantly written to the point that it captivates people with no previous interest in the subject.

“In terms of neuroanatomy,” Gilbert says, “other sensory systems, sight and touch for example, go through the thalamus, in the brain structure – at which point we become consciously aware of what’s happening. Smell bypasses the thalamus. Researchers have observed the brain responding to scent at levels that are too low for the test subject to detect. There’s little doubt that odours can be registered subconsciously.”

“I think that putting on a really memorable perfume” I suggest to Gilbert, “can alter your mood in the same way that you might drive differently, depending on whether you’re listening to some ­dismal Bach fugue, or to ZZ Top. The difference with smell is that you could be – for marketing reasons – exposed to the equivalent of ZZ Top without knowing it.”

“That’s a useful analogy,” the ­academic replies. “I have definitely noticed that effect on my own driving, depending on whether I want to relax, or I crank the music up. A number of my passengers have remarked on it.”

“There’s a piece by the British poet John Cooper Clarke,” I tell him, called ‘Things are Going to Get Worse’. It contains the lines: ‘Things are going to get worse, nurse / I ain’t optimistic / I’ve got a mouth shaped like a purse, nurse / And a bungalow smelling of piss and biscuit’. Those final three words might not make an ideal title for a fragrance – not unless it was aimed at the Labrador retriever market – but such an aroma could, presumably, be replicated in the laboratory?”

“Absolutely. The only question would be whether you wanted wine urine or vodka urine. You – coming, as I recall, from Manchester – might prefer the full-on stench of a soccer ground urinal, though I did hear that smell has diminished recently, because a lot of supporters have taken to relieving themselves in the parking lot.” After that, Gilbert suggests, it would just be a question of whether you wanted to add a hint of HobNob or Penguin biscuits.

Even today, there is still some debate as to the way that smell operates. The writer and biophysicist Luca Turin takes issue with the orthodox position (namely that the shape of molecules dictates their effect on nasal receptors) and believes that vibrational qualities of particles determine smell.

Turin, with his wife Tania Sanchez, produced an entertaining 2008 best­seller: Perfumes: The A-Z Guide. A charismatic polymath, he remains somewhat isolated in the world of perfume scientists. What’s really curious about Luca Turin is that, for a man stubbornly wedded to scientific process in his research, he writes about scent with the kind of audacious cross-cultural comparisons that used to give French wine critics a bad name.

Turin describes Guérlain’s Mitsouko (established in 1919 and still going strong) as “pure Brahms, the string sextets, intricate but rather monochrome”. “‘Tommy Girl’ (Tommy Hilfiger) on the other hand, “gives you Prokofiev’s first symphony”. Of Black, by Bulgari: “At different times, it will strike you as a battle hymn for Amazons, emerald green plush fit for Napoleon’s box at the Opera, or plain sweet and smiling.” Turin is very rude about Olivier Creed, and once suggested that he might have been on the sauce when he devised one of his great fragrances, Virgin Island Water.

However a smell reaches the brain, what’s undeniable is that exposure to it can be profoundly connected to memory. If I can strike a personal note, were a woman to approach me wearing a ­fragrance that combined Mitsouko with notes of Paris Métro air, Pouilly Fumé and a hint of Benson and Hedges – a creation I like to call “Sorcière#101” – I would have no doubt that she was ­trouble.

Smell: The Final Frontier

The emotional impact of half-forgotten smells is all the greater because they frequently arrive without warning, and represent stimuli over which we have little or no control.

We are regularly, often unwittingly, exposed to scent when we visit many large retailers. The practice goes far beyond what you may have noticed – food stores pumping out, for instance, the smell of baking bread, chocolate or coffee beans. One well-known shirt retailer infuses its outlets with the smell of fresh laundry. Experiments have indicated that such subliminal techniques are highly effective.

Cheok emphasises that his goal is “not just to pump smells into a store, but to stream them online”. That said, Gilbert tells me, the digitisation of scent makes it far easier to manipulate in public areas.

Efficient Smell-o-Vision is now an achievable reality; the magician David Copperfield has successfully used such effects in his Las Vegas shows. One 1999 study conducted at a casino in that city indicated that fragrances can increase the average spend by 45%. Every major Las Vegas operator now manipulates odour, most to highly sophisticated ­levels.

Is Cheok correct, I asked Gilbert, when he says that the line between biology and digital hardware is starting to blur? “Absolutely he is,” Gilbert tells me. “I am currently advising a silicon valley start-up company called Aeromyx. What they have is a biochip which will allow them to anchor all 400 of the human olfactory receptor proteins. It scans the 400 receptors, and records which has been activated and to what extent. That gives you a digital signal of a smell based on the biological receptors in the human nose. And that is completely crossing the line.”

“So,” I ask him, “how do you feel about the Scentee?”

“This one,” Gilbert replies, “has ­puzzled me. I am a big fan of olfactory technology of all sorts, but this device, given that the smells are loaded one at a time, does seem a trifle cludgy in its current form.”

Where the Scentee is concerned, ­Gilbert continues, “I do admire the vision and the technology. And I am extremely interested in the idea of using the senses for information signalling. For ­example,” he says, expanding on the idea that I’d heard Cheok’s team outline in London, “if you had people in an assisted-living home and you needed to remind them that it was dinner time, this could be achieved very effectively by smell. Scent might also be a useful way of alerting you to processes that are building gradually. As you become increasingly tense, for instance, smell could be calibrated to intensify, as a signal to tell you that your heart rate was increasing and remind you that it was time to take a deep breath, and relax.”

Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man was right: in the future, smell is the sense most likely to preoccupy us, in ­combination with digital technology. “All of the means of delivery are there,” Gilbert says. “It is simply a matter of finding the right application. People are now thinking about architecture that is sensitive to the people who are inside it. Buildings could potentially be designed so as to sense, for example, heart rate. They could have an olfactostat; a thermostat for smells.”

“Have you been surprised,” I ask Cheok, “by the speed with which your research has progressed in order to produce something like the Scentee, or do you feel frustrated that things haven’t moved faster?”

“Both,” he replies. “I have big visions and I am aware that these things necessarily take time. This is not like working in a bank. When you are trying to take quantum leaps, there are bound to be failures. But I think that ultimately, with rigour and perseverance, an ambitious approach leads to the most important research.”

Is it actually possible, I ask Gilbert, that we are on the brink of a new age, with regard to digital transmission of scent? Are we going to be surprised at what is achievable in the next 25 years?

“We will be surprised,” he replies, “much sooner than that. Now that we have wirelessly-controlled scent devices, we’re just looking for the applications. When somebody produces the right combination of technology and smell, the resulting product will be very, very big.”

Globally, Cheok concedes, there are many teams of scientists endeavouring to digitise the sensual world. Many of his competitors, in Tokyo, Harvard and Paris, enjoy facilities far more lavishly equipped than his own. But to anyone who has met the small man from Adelaide, it would come as no surprise were it to be a modest laboratory in the City of London that celebrated that first, exhilarating moment of illumination.