Smell Ya Later...Literally

The digital smell recorder
The digital smell recorder

August 3, 2006 | Post Archive

Smell is so much a part of how we define the world and our experiences. Some aromas waft over us with a tide of memories in tow – the amalgamation of seaweed, wet sand and cigarettes for instance, or the bittersweet tang of a once-loved but conveniently forgotten perfume.

Scent plays a starring role in the stories of travelers, too, as they remind them of favorite or despised locations. The smell of cabbage, for instance, may remind you of your grandmother's kitchen, or a piece of leather may make you remember your first car. These experiences of smell tied to memory are largely private as they can't be shared accurately with people who weren't there, though we do our best to describe – we read prose and poetry that attempt to capture the scents we know on paper, but how could we ever expect paper to properly render the aroma of a French bakery?

As luck would have it, technology has an answer: Scientists in Japan have developed a machine that analyzes aromas through 15 sensor chips and reproduces the scent by mixing 96 different chemicals. The machine then vaporizes the mixture. Each of the 96 chemicals is contained in separate glass bottles, which makes the machine quite large - 3 feet by 2 feet. The machine is hardly portable, though a more compact version is available. This version only has the sensor chips, which digitally record the odor, and it must be hooked up to the chemical-filled version to experience the scent.

A compact smellovision machine
(AP Photo/Katsumi Kasahara)

In December, another Japanese company (NTT Communications Corporation) developed a machine that synchronizes scents with movies called Smellovision. The in-theater version emits scents from machines located under the back rows, basing the scent on the mood of the scene. Now there's a home version that costs just over $600. The in-house version allows users to download specialized programs to produce scents for different activities. But as Hans Greimel of the Associated Press says, "The NTT Project...was about reproducing smells rather than recording them as well."

Aside from e-mailing scents to friends and family (great potential for practical jokes there, by the way), the smell gadget's developers see other potential uses, such as online shopping or aroma-emitting cell phones. And perhaps the smell gadget could give lovesick singer-songwriters a remedy for their ailing hearts and the rest of us wouldn't have to endure any more "missing you" songs about the fading smell of their ex-girlfriend's pillowcase. Because, really, haven't we had enough of that already? (link)

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