Author Nicholas Derenzo Illustration Jameson Simpson
Trans-Atlantic voyages have been big news since Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But this summer, a new “traveler” has joined the trailblazing ranks of Lindbergh and Earhart: Inventors David Edwards and Rachel Field, of Harvard University, transmitted the world’s first “scent message” from Paris to New York City on a new device by Vapor Communications called the oPhone (o for olfactory). To toast the special occasion, the first fragrances chosen were appropriately celebratory (and French): Champagne and macarons. The system will serve as a personalized and customizable take on the classic Smell-O-Vision model. Sure, there are interesting real-world uses for such an invention, such as adding smells to immersive museum exhibits or using enticing aromas in advertisements to lure customers. But for the vast majority of us, this new technology should just prove, well, remarkably fun—like an olfactory emoji. Imagine, for example, how the addition of a mouthwatering whiff of bacon will up your brunch-bragging game on social media or how an additional sensory experience might improve your latest vacation slideshow. The oPhone, which sold for $149 in a pre-order that closed in July, is expected to hit the market next spring. Here, we sniff out the details on your new favorite tech toy.
1 Each oPhone can be loaded with eight replaceable oChips, which act like a printer’s toner cartridge. An oChip in turn contains four wicks, each of which is infused with a basic building-block scent, such as “buttery,” “cocoa beans” or “tropical fruit.” For now, the aromatic palette is exclusively centered on food and coffee, but Edwards plans to diversify the offerings with future releases.
2 An app called oSnap is then used to tag photographs by combining these 32 primary scents into more than 300,000 customized creations. You might, for example, replicate the unique aroma of a cheeseburger by selecting “meaty,” “cheesy” and “grilled toast.” In future models, the app may even be able to recognize images and tag certain objects automatically.
3 When the signal reaches the phone, a tiny fan is triggered, and the relevant wicks spin in the air current. The transmitted smell then puffs out of the receiver, dissipating after only a few seconds—just long enough for the nose to detect it. Eventually, users will be able to send scent messages through email, Twitter and Facebook.