Future Fragrance

ophone

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.

ophone1

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.”

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My Knitted Boyfriend

Knitted Boyfriend

I discovered the beautiful work of Noortje De Keijzer recently in Amsterdam. Noortje knitted herself a boyfriend for a masters project at the Design Academy Eindhoven. I thought it was the saddest thing I’d ever seen. But I convinced myself it was about irony, or a clever parody of our desperate and messed up relationships in 2012. But no. Noortje told me she was actually just lonely. She said:

“I felt very lonely at times, and I’m sure everybody feels lonely from time to time. The strange part is that it seems like it’s an emotion nobody really talks about. As if it’s something to be ashamed of, a bad feeling that should always be avoided. By creating Arthur and Steve, I wanted to show the subject in a very light, humorous, positive way. I created this story about a girl so lonely that she decided to just knit a man who could accompany her”.

knitted boyfriend

Apart from the beautiful commentary My Knitted Boyfriend offers on everything synthetic (even relationships) it also made me think of how touch and intimacy have been reinvented in ways we hardly ever reflect on. Haptic technology and gestural interfaces usher in new practices that are remodelling our sensual experiences. And while it might seem easy to snigger at the quirky knitted equivalent of a blow up doll, it’s no sadder than our current digital lives: cradling our beloved iPhone, pawing our iPad surface.

I keep coming back to Next Nature when I think about emotion and technology. Next Nature explores the boundary of where the born and made meet. So maybe it’s our next nature: to manifest our own solutions to loneliness, to knit the blues away. Soon we’ll access the memories (or entire consciousness) of our dream guy or girl.

I continue to be fascinated by the future of intimacy.

– Natalie Dixon

Humoticons

Emoticons have long since been relegated to first-base intimacy. They’re primitive relics of how we express what we can’t say in words. They’re also early avatars or “emblematic figures of contemporary co-presence” according to M.I.T’s Beth Coleman (in her new book, Hello Avatar). But now, Facetime and other video-calling apps are rendering emoticons further into the hinterland of the tech terrain. The dancing ninja, the bear hug, the hair-swipe dude, are all digital collateral-turned-retro. They’re more like ironic digital collateral than representations of emotion.

Skype Emoticons

Which makes Skype’s new marketing campaign curious. Launched a week or two ago, Humoticons is a Facebook app that lets users choose a picture from a limited stash of their Facebook photos, which is converted into an emoticon. Once your emoticon has been created, you choose an existing Skype emoticon (smile, wink, angry) that best matches your expressed emotion. Voila, Humoticon.
Humoticons: upload

The Humoticon campaign doesn’t only say something about improving an apparent communication hamstring (or about reviving emoticons). It shows that Skype is interested in conveying emotion, they think emotion makes us human, that the web could do with being “more human.”

According to their blog: “putting humanity back into how we communicate with others each and every day.”

It also gives emotion researchers fertile ground for investigating users’ expressions of emotion. Browse through the Humoticon gallery and you’ll often find fascinating labels for people’s expression of emotion. Take the following:

Humoticon: not smiling
Humoticon: evil grin (not)
Humoticon: Wondering?
tongue out emoticon
Isn’t there also something to be said about reinventing emoticons? A new visual language is ripe for rising up to represent emotions. Can images make us feel? Or at least close enough…

In the same vein as the blooming flower or raining cloud emoticon, this image is my stab at “gloomy.”

gloomy emoticon

Or the unmistakeable “chirpy”:
chirpy emoticon