Future Fragrance

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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.

It’s Funny Cause It’s True

Original Article courtesy Gawker

In a clarion call that will likely rival his insta-legendary “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy” diatribe delivered nearly five years ago on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, comedian Louis C.K. explains — to Conan, once again — exactly why he dislikes the culture of smartphones and why he would never get one for his kids.

C.K. starts off by suggesting that smartphone usage is the reason kids today are meaner:

I think these things are toxic, especially for kids…they don’t look at people when they talk to them and they don’t build empathy. You know, kids are mean, and it’s ’cause they’re trying it out. They look at a kid and they go, ‘you’re fat,’ and then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go, ‘oh, that doesn’t feel good to make a person do that.’ But they got to start with doing the mean thing. But when they write ‘you’re fat,’ then they just go, ‘mmm, that was fun, I like that.’

From there, C.K. moved on to expound on the larger issue: The negative emotional effect that smartphones have on grown-ups.

While C.K. agrees that smartphones can help create a sense of community, he believes that therein lies the problem:

You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty. That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and that you’re alone. It’s down there.

And sometimes when things clear away, you’re not watching anything, you’re in your car, and you start going, ‘oh no, here it comes. That I’m alone.’ It’s starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it…

That’s why we text and drive. I look around, pretty much 100 percent of the people driving are texting. And they’re killing, everybody’s murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.

Finally, C.K. brings it all together with an anecdote about the time he was in his car listening to a Bruce Springsteen song (“Jungleland“) that made him really sad:

And I go, ‘oh, I’m getting sad, gotta get the phone and write “hi” to like 50 people’…then I said, ‘you know what, don’t. Just be sad. Just let the sadness, stand in the way of it, and let it hit you like a truck.’

And I let it come, and I just started to feel ‘oh my God,’and I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch. I cried so much. And it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments.

And then I had happy feelings. Because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness. It was such a trip.

The thing is, because we don’t want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone or a jack-off or the food. You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your product, and then you die. So that’s why I don’t want to get a phone for my kids.

The Selfie: To Live is To Be Photographed

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Images captured from Instagram using #phone

Susan Sontag, On Photography

To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and therefore, like power.
As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.
…dependence on the camera, as the device that makes real what one is experiencing….

Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to an experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on.

Jose Van Dijck, Mediated Memories in the Digital Age

Whereas their parents invested considerable time and effort in building up material collections of pictures for future reference, youngsters appear to take less interest in sharing photographs as objects than as sharing them as experiences. [p.114]

Digital photography is part of this larger transformation in which the self becomes the center of a virtual universe made up of informational and spatial flows, individuals articulate their identity as social beings not only by taking and storing photographs to document their lives but also by by participating in communal photographic exchanges that mark their identity as interactive producers and consumers of culture.
From the above observations it is tempting to draw the conclusion that digital cameras are moving away from their prime functions as memory tools, instead becoming tools for identity formation, communication, and experience. If photographs were always a medium for remembering scenes and objects from the past, digital cameras particularly encourage users to imagine and invent the present.[p.116]

Sherry Turkle, Alone Together

Gradually we come to see our online life as life itself. We come to see what robots offer as relationship. the simplification of relationship is no longer a source of compliant. It becomes what we want. Technology reshapes the landscape of our emotional lives, but is it offering us the lives we want to lead? [p.17]

Arms held high; cell phone glint in the sun. People are taking pictures of themselves, of strangers, of friends…The event is a celebration of physical presence, but the crowd reaches out to those who are absent. It is important to have images of the day on one’s own phone. And it is important to send them along. A photo from the inauguration, or a text, a posting, an email, a Tweet – all validate the sense of being there. It used to be that taking a photograph marked participation…But these days, the photograph is not enough. Sending implies being….We are pressed into the service of technologies of remembrance and validation. [p.302]

Sarah Kember & Joanna Zylinska, Life After New Media

Our argument is that events are never merely presented and represented in the media, and that any such representations are always to an extent performative. [xvi]

If indeed to live is to be photographed, then contrary to its more typical association with the passage of time and death, photography can be understood more productively in terms of vitality, as a process of differentiation and life-making. [p.72]

..if we are to think about photography in terms of mediation – whereby mediation stands for the differentiation of, as well as the connection between, media and, more broadly, for the acts and processes of producing and temporarily stabilizing the world into media , agents and relations, and networks – we need to see the ontology of photography as predominantly that of becoming.[p.79]

Let’s Talk About Me

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Original Article:by ROBERT LEE HOTZ

Talking about ourselves—whether in a personal conversation or through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter—triggers the same sensation of pleasure in the brain as food or money, researchers reported Monday.

About 40% of everyday speech is devoted to telling others about what we feel or think. Now, through five brain imaging and behavioral experiments, Harvard University neuroscientists have uncovered the reason: It feels so rewarding, at the level of brain cells and synapses, that we can’t help sharing our thoughts.

Bragging gives the same sensation of pleasure as food and money. The same areas of the brain are activated, scans show.

“Self-disclosure is extra rewarding,” said Harvard neuroscientist Diana Tamir, who conducted the experiments with Harvard colleague Jason Mitchell. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “People were even willing to forgo money in order to talk about themselves,” Ms. Tamir said.

To assess people’s inclination for what the researchers call “self disclosure,” they conducted laboratory tests to see whether people placed an unusually high value on the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings. They also monitored brain activity among some volunteers to see what parts of the brain were most excited when people talked about themselves as opposed to other people. The dozens of volunteers were mostly Americans who lived near the university.

In several tests, they offered the volunteers money if they chose to answer questions about other people, such as President Obama, rather than about themselves, paying out on a sliding scale of up to four cents. Questions involved casual matters such as whether someone enjoyed snowboarding or liked mushrooms on a pizza. Other queries involved personality traits, such as intelligence, curiosity or aggression.

Despite the financial incentive, people often preferred to talk about themselves and willingly gave up between 17% and 25% of their potential earnings so they could reveal personal information. “We joked that this was the penny for your thoughts study,” Ms. Tamir said.

In related tests, the scientists used a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner, which tracks changes in blood flow between neurons associated with mental activity, to see what parts of the brain responded most strongly when people talked about their own beliefs and options, rather than speculating about other people.

Generally, acts of self disclosure were accompanied by spurts of heightened activity in brain regions belonging to the meso-limbic dopamine system, which is associated with the sense of reward and satisfaction from food, money or sex.

“It rings true to me,” said psychologist James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin who studies how people handle secrets and self-disclosure, but was not involved in the project. “We love it if other people listen to us. Why else would you tweet?”

The Hunt for Affect

View from the frog office Amsterdam
View from the frog office Amsterdam

For the past 6 months I have been collaborating with frog, a global design and innovation company in Amsterdam on a design research project. It all culminates in a book (forthcoming), published by the University of Amsterdam Press. Below is the abstract. – Natalie Dixon

Emotions represent some of our most deeply private and personal experiences. Cocooned in an intimate cluster of our personality, life stories and DNA, most times they are completely inscrutable, even to ourselves. Yet, in the minimally chartered tundra of emotion research, explorers hunt for affective charges. Running wild these charges are released into the atmosphere during our everyday tasks and encounters. Do you feel fascination or amusement right now? Did your feeling of warm content rapidly collapse into seething rage this morning when your coffee machine demanded a filter clean before you even blinked hello? Does your mobile phone intimidate you?
The first explorers turned to the expression of emotions in man and animals; later biometric measurements; then a taxonomy of facial expressions; and more recently chartering the Internet, navigating the woven web between people and their online social networks. What makes the hunt so addictive is the holy grail it offers: an understanding of people’s motivation and ultimately behaviour. In the context of design, capturing emotional charge offers the shining promise of design clues, access to a world where emotional responses shape the design agenda of everything we use and own. In a project lasting seven months, spanning Amsterdam and Munich, frog design and embedded researcher Natalie Dixon joined the hunt.