Future Fragrance

ophone

Originally published on Wired.

We have all sorts of ways to communicate with one another: text messages, emails, Gchats and, according to my sources, even phone calls. We live in a word-heavy world, and why not? A sentence, both spoken and written, is a highly efficient way to transmit a lot of information with very little time and effort. But words aren’t necessarily the best way to express every idea. Logistically speaking, verbal and written languages have cultural barriers that are sometimes insurmountable. Emotionally speaking, sometimes words just don’t do justice for what we’re trying to convey.

Full-sensory correspondence is still a long way off. We’re just now beginning to explore how powerful virtual touch could be in connecting with each other. But there’s one sense that’s been notoriously missing from the landscape: smell. “When you think about how important the olfactive is in almost every type of communication, its absence in global communication is sort of astounding,” says David Edwards.

Edwards is the always-buzzing mind behind Le Laboratoire, the Paris innovation tank and research facility that brought us Wikipearls and Le Whaf. The group’s most recent invention, the oPhone, is aiming to make olfactory communication commonplace by transmitting odors much in the same way you send text messages.

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This little cartridge contains olfactive information that can produce hundreds of odor signals.

It’s a basic idea. Humans have long bonded over smells, both good and bad (there’s nothing like a smelly subway car to force intimacy). It’s strange then, that no one has been able to channel scents into a more digestible form of communication.

There’s one big problem when it comes to doing this, says Edwards: “Odor transmission to date is not smart,” he explains. “If I give you the odor of a pizza, I have a difficult time immediately after giving you the odor of the sea and then giving you the odor of a cactus.” Basically what Edwards is saying, and what we already know from letting trash sit in our apartments a day too long, is that odors linger. Which makes it hard to craft any sort of cohesive and decipherable olfactive narrative.

The oPhone solves this problem with its main innovation: the oChip. This little cartridge, about the size of a fingernail, contains olfactive information that can produce hundreds (and soon thousands, says Edwards) of odor signals. The idea is that these chips can be installed in the oPhone, and via a bluetooth-connected app called oTracks, scents can be sent to yourself or an oPhone-carrying friend with the push of a button.

Edwards and his small team have been prototyping the oPhone for the better part of a year. The most current version, unveiled at the WIRED UK conference, is a system of sorts that uses four cylindrical oPhones that can each be loaded with up to eight scent chips. This allows for what Edwards calls an “odor symphony,” or the ability to craft a multi-odiferous message with actual context. “These are pretty subtle odor signals that allow me to create sentences, paragraphs and essays, if you will, of odor messages,” he says.

The final product, due out later this year, will come with two oPhones, a choice that Edwards says is a compromise to ensure people can experience more than once smell simultaneously. “You can have these great coffees on one side and breads on the other side,” he explains. “There will be some oTracks that use two oPhones and some that use one.”

He’s quick to say that the initial consumer product is less about catering to a mobile, urban user and more about creating a sensory experience around food or media consumption. Immediate applications will be a coffee experience, which allows oPhone holders to smell various coffee scents. Edwards is also working with Paris Vapors to integrate oPhone technology into media like books, movies and TV shows.

It might seem a little clunky, but most new technology is. More interesting is thinking about future applications, when the oPhone functions more like a cell phone. Edwards is plugging away on creating the universal oChip, a customizable version of the oChip that can be programmed with whatever smell you can think of. You can imagine that this could be applied in healthcare to stimulate memories and relieve stress. Or, more personally, someday while visiting your grandparent’s house, you could send a text message to your brother embedded with smell emoticons that will conjure up the cookies your grandmother used to make.

That inherent emotional connection to smell is what Edwards is looking to exploit. And in his opinion, it’s only a matter of time before it’s commonplace. “If Twitter had this enormous impact with very limited information content exchange, you can imagine a complete aroma equivalent of that,” he says. “It’s fascinating how powerful that could be.”

Making Strangers Less Strange

20 Day Stranger

The MIT Media Lab’s Playful Systems Group and the Dalai Lama Center for Transformative Ethics have launched a new experiment called 20 Day Stranger.

The central hypothesis: Can a mobile application change the way we think about strangers?

Aim: The mobile app aims to create an intimate and anonymous connection between you and another person – a total stranger. Details – like name, age and address – will never revealed. For 20 days, both strangers are meant to continuously update each other about where they are, what they are doing, and eventually how they are feeling.

The rationale: In a world mediated through computing, our everyday lives are increasingly affected by complex and invisible systems. Some of these are algorithmic trades on the stock market, others are search results for information, movies, or a date. These systems often aspire to transparency, usability, and efficiency. Playful systems take a different approach, bringing the systems to the foreground as games, stories, narratives, and visualizations. Playful systems embrace complexity rather than conceal it, and seek to delight, not disappear.

Messages from the edge

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South Korean ferry disaster  – 17 April, 2014 –  passengers text their families while on board.

Mobile Lovers: Latest from Banksy

banksy_mobile_lovers

Latest work by Banksy, titled Mobile Lovers, created on wood and attached to a wall in Bristol but later removed.

The Mobile Banal

Watching people eat on trains? Okay. Hearing loud techno on trains? Okay. Overhearing someone’s mobile conversation? Please, anything but that.

Train Commuters

On a recent train trip to Schiphol airport I was seated within earshot of an American traveller who’d forgotten his laptop at his hotel in Amsterdam. I know this because he was using his mobile phone to discuss, in loud breathless tones, the logistics of how it would be returned to him. He went through an astonishing amount of detail in the conversation. There was the arranged time for a courier to collect the laptop, how it would be labelled and packaged, and most importantly, what would happen on the off chance that someone was not at reception when the courier arrived. I could tell he was panicked from the way his requests almost clung to the person on the other side, like this call was his last and only link with his Macbook.

I’ve long since made my peace with train etiquette in Holland. For one, the Dutch are completely at ease, wolfing down a 3-course meal directly in front of you on a train. Once I watched a woman dismantle an entire club sandwich, removing the onion and then flinging it with sweet abandon into the open rubbish bin next to our co-joined seats. Some trains include “silent” carriages – ones which don’t allow any music to be played or mobile calls. But most times you’ll find yourself in the “anything goes” carriage, which means you run the full gauntlet of techno, house or my favourite, Dutch hip hop. It helps to close your eyes when you’re on the train. The sociologist Erving Goffman’s might have called this the extreme version of “civil inattentiveness.” But these are extreme times. And our new companion species, isn’t furry and doesn’t bark. Mobiles are lively critters, going everywhere we do.

Once I watched a woman dismantle an entire club sandwich, removing the onion and then flinging it with sweet abandon into the open rubbish bin next to our co-joined seats.

While music and food shenanigans are par for the course in commuting terms, it seems that we reserve a special tension for conversations we have to endure in shared space these days. The mobile phone has become a powerful actor in the erosion of the boundary line between our notions of private and public. This has been the subject for academic debate for over 10 years. What new meanings are created by having intimate conversations in public? What does this means for our defence of space? How does it shape concepts of individualism and the collective? Turning to new age framings: what does this mean for our sense of presence and being mindful?

Getting back to the guy who forgot his laptop, I wondered what exactly bothered me about overhearing his conversation. I narrowed it down to three options, not mutually exclusive. 1.) I was trapped into hearing his conversation, thanks to my proximity and his booming voice. So it disenfranchised me of any choice, and I had no way of defending my personal space. 2.) The conversation was one sided. In other instances, like when I overhear a conversation between two people chatting in the seat behind me in real life, it somehow feels more incidental and appropriate, it kind of melts into the background. But when someone is having a mobile conversation, it’s annoyingly lop-sided and somehow becomes intrusive.

And our new companion species, isn’t furry and doesn’t bark. Mobiles are lively critters, going everywhere we do.

It’s not a new thought that our bodies aren’t just solitary insulated items that merrily trot along in life. We exist as porous bodies, constantly exchanging information with other bodies (human and non-human). Which leads me to my most plausible explanation of the three. Like Mr America, I also became anxious listening to this conversation, it affected me. I had planned to decompress a little on the trip to Schiphol, instead now I was part of a someone else’s drama. More than that, the conversation was achingly banal. Being in inescapable earshot of this conversation reminded me of a part of life I’d much prefer not to think about. That dimension that has nothing to do with love, or art or fantasy or intrigue. It just reminded me of the flat quotidian side of life that is just doggedly banal.

Producing Desire

Selfie at Oscars 2014

Above is the most reTweeted image in history, taken at the 2014 Oscars and indirectly conceptualised by Samsung (without the caption).  This is marketing masquerading as “incidental” selfie.  Have we just witnessed  the Samsung Galaxy affect? The passage below is a brilliant piece from Australian cultural theorist Claire Colebrook titled The Death of the PostHuman: Essays on Extinction, Volume One, that offers come commentary on this…

We are suffering, today—here and now—from hyper-hypo-affective disorder. We appear to be consuming nothing other than affects; even the supposed material needs of life—food, sex, sociality—are now marketed affectively. Branding relies on irrational attachments or ‘lovemarks,’ while politics trades in terror and resentment. Affects themselves are marketed: one can purchase games of horror or disgust, and even the purchase of a cup of coffee is perhaps undertaken less for the sake of the caffeine stimulant and more for the Starbucks affect. This is what led Michael Hardt to theorize a new era of affective labor. But this over-consumption and boom of marketable affects is accompanied by affect fatigue, as though there were an inverse relation between the wider and wider extension of affective influx and the ever-diminishing intensity of affect. It is not surprising then that cultural diagnoses of the present observe two seemingly incompatible catastrophic tendencies: a loss of cognitive or analytic apparatuses in the face of a culture of affective immediacy, and yet a certain deadening of the human organism (ranging from Walter Benjamin’s observation of an absence of experience in an information age to Fredric Jameson’s claim for a ‘waning of affect’ in a world of over-stimulation, in which there is no longer a distinction between experiencing subject and external object, no other person, for whom one might feel empathy).

World Press Photo Winner (2014)

world press photo 2014

by John Stanmeyer

“Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.” – Theodore (Her)

Instacurity (n.): an excessive concern with one’s social media presence, influence, and/or likeability.

Because we live our lives to be liked on the internet.

Leashed Texters

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