oPhone: A sniff of the future

Updated: Jun 29 2014, 07:45am hrs
OphoneWhen the oPhone on the New York side picked up the message, the device dissipated a subtle aroma that matched perfectly with the picture.
Heres a sniff of the future and its called the oPhone. It may sound suspiciously like an iPhone, but the o is for olfactory and it refers to a revolutionary new messaging platform, which transmits scents. Vapor Communications, the company behind the scent-messaging platform, says: With oPhone, people will be able to share with anyone, anywhere, not just words, images and sounds, but sensory experiences itself. The first scent messages were exchanged last week between New York and Paris. At the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, co-inventors David Edwards, a Harvard professor, and Rachel Field, formerly an undergrad student at the same university, joined collaborators Christophe Laudamiel and Blake Armstrong in Paris via Skype. From Paris, they emailed a scent-tagged photograph of French delicacies and champagne they had just poured to celebrate the launch of the oPhone. When the oPhone on the New York side picked up the message, the device dissipated a subtle aroma that matched perfectly with the picture.

The scent-infused messages, called oNotes, are composed in an iPhone app called oSnap, which was launched simultaneously. Using oSnap, users can mix and match from 32 basic aromas to produce more than 3,00,000 unique scents. The 32 aromas are placed inside oPhones eight oChips, which are like a printers ink cartridges. When the device receives an oNote, it releases the corresponding aroma based on the aromatic tags assigned to the image. Each scent is designed to last roughly 10 seconds. If the images are tagged with more than one scent, the smells will release one after the other. The oPhone introduces a new kind of sensory experience into mobile messaging.

The idea originated two years ago in Edwards course at Harvard called How to Create Things and Have Them Matter. Field, then a mechanical engineering undergrad, and some of her classmates looked at creating a virtual world of aroma. They developed the idea at Le Laboratoire, Edwards creative hub in Paris known for conducting experiments at the intersection of science and art. In the scent-messaging project, Edwards is focusing on the food space. oPhones will be displayed in cafes in Paris to test the devices business potential at places where aromas matter.

Edwards is the CEO of Vapor Communications. Currently, oNotes are transmitted via email or social media, and can be picked up at hotspots where there are oPhones in place to receive them. oPhones are available commercially at around $150, but it will take time to gauge their impact. In New York, people can try out the oPhone at The American Museum of Natural History during three weekends in July. oNotes add a new dimension to telecommunication. The possibilities for the technology are vast: scent messages could be aromatic pictures of a cup of coffee, olfactory tweets from a wine tasting, scented sounds from a family dinner party, or even a promotional campaign for a restaurant. One day, fairly soon, any user of a mobile phone anywhere will not only be able to receive a scent messageinvoking a culinary pleasurebut quickly send another back, similar to how we exchange audio information today with friends around the world, says Edwards. So far, oNotes are limited to scent-tagged images composed in oSnap, a free mobile messaging app for iPhone devices. Whether that is the scent of success is too early to tell.