Some fifteen years ago I wrote a middle-grade adventure novel in which four children save the Amazon jungle from a devastating and illegal logging operation by use of brains, practical ingenuity, physical agility, and an odor-recording satellite phone. Actually, the satellite phone was not only capable of recording and sending smell, it was also able to record the "green" value of any object. The first feature within the grasp of technology; the second entirely fictional.
When I wrote the novel (hiding in a dark drawer ever since), there were the beginnings of research into digital smell. I thought it would take me a year to get published and that the book would coincide with the roll-out of some phone that could actually record and send smell.
Fifteen years later, we still don't have a successfully marketed odor recording phone. What we do have, however, are odor recording and digitizing gadgets, an odor-texting phone, and myriad odor-dispensing gadgets. The weakness in the varied technologies so far is that none offer a portable scent recorder on the fly.
It should be possible to harness the varied aspects of odor recording, digitizing, sending, and dispensing into a single unit--an odor-recording phone--that would be capable of sending the odor that you are smelling right now.
This instructable will look at the technologies that would have to come together into such a gadget, and ask the question: What should an odor recording and dispensing phone becalled?
Step 1: Scent Delivery
Targeted scent delivery has been around for some time.
In the 1930s, a scientist called Hans Laube developed a system for releasing smell to enhance movie-viewing. The technology backfired when it was used in 1950 as the movie-gowers were overpowered with odor upon odor in a poorly-ventilated theater.
Fast forward half a century. In the early nineties, I remember walking the streets of Osaka and being bombarded with delicious food smells when passing rows of restaurants and cafes tucked behind glass walls. The odors were not vented from bakeries or kitchens. Rather, they were artificially dispensed as a marketing tool to get passersby to open the doors and enter.
In 1999, a firm called DigiScents unveiled a gadget that let users trigger smells when they opened an email or visited a website. In 2001 they released the iSmell--a futuristic looking tower that sat on your desk and mixed 128 primary odors into identifiable smells when digitally triggered. The thing bombed because, well, what was the point?
Last year the Scentee was released--a ball-shaped odor dispenser that attached to your cell phone via the headphone jack, turning your iPhone into a Smell-o-Phone. It could (can) dispense a limited number of odors such as coffee, lavender, and strawberry. As one review put it, "It's ridiculous, a bit impractical, but it's fun."
The fact that digital scent has been the object of research for so long tells us that it is a curiosity that will not go away unsatisfied. But so far the delivery has been on the impractical side, with a short attention span for the limited "fun" aspect of it.
Step 2: Digital Odor Transmission
One step closer to a full-fledged scent communication device is the digital transmission part.
In 2014, scientists at Harvard released the Smellophone, or oPhone. The digital odor technology made use of an app that could combine an array of pre-digitized smells into new combinations, send it via phone to a sister phone which could then send the digital information to two towers sitting on a desk which would mix essential oils and release the new odor into the air.
Another great idea, but it too bombed. Why? Because it involved too many steps? Too many pieces to the puzzle? For such a limited purpose?
Step 3: Odor Recording and Encoding
In 2013, another piece of the puzzle was brought to market: a device that could capture ambient or object odors via a funnel-type setup that would such the smell and embed it into a resin puck (my translation) with accompanying graph of the odor's composition. This graph could then be sent (I presume digitally?) to a lab which could reproduce the scent in vials.
Nifty idea, except that it's awfully cumbersome, which makes it fairly unmarketable. But the technology? Brilliant!
All that is needed is a way to shrink all four steps into a combined unit that can record, digitize, send, and dispense odors.
Then the marketing can begin!
Step 4: The Odor Recording Phone
Since the technology to dispense odor is fairly mature, my "wish phone" is one that records odors on the fly--the real missing link in the digital smell technology.
This fictional phone has a stethoscope-like attachment connected to the phone via a long-ish cable. Why the long-ish cable? Because you don't want to stick your actual phone over a pot of steaming chicken stew or down an outhouse hole or in someone's mouth!
The design of the stethoscope is thus: it's slightly funnel-shaped. The wide end of the funnel has a mesh that allows odor-rich air to pass through. Next comes a tiny fan that pushed the scent back towards a tiny array of some 400 sensors at the narrow end of the funnel (roughly the number of olfactory sensors in our noses), concentrating the smell. The sensors read the odor as electrical stimuli. The back end of the odor coder has pinpricks in it to allow air to pass all the way through and out.
The recorded smell then passes up the cable into an app that digitizes it for transmission.
And voila! The Thingamajig! The TalkingScents! The Telesmeller! Or whatever.
Step 5: Naming/Marketing That Gadget
OK, so I have a lot to learn about building electronic gadgets (thank you Seeed, in advance, for the chance?). I do have plenty of ideas of how things could work!
I think the sad thing about the odor recording and transmitting technology to date is the marketing. Why have they stopped at the "cute text" level? Why not imagine the uses of odor coding and transmission for forensic studies and other police work? Lab tele-testing? Long distance job training (does this milk smell bad to you, boss?); medical diagnostics where inexperienced trainees can be part of a disaster relief effort (yes, that smells like gangrene); etc?
The disastrous marketing, I'm thinking, is due to the fact that there is still no real-time odor recording. There is no point in transmitting a set array of odors that have no relation to the specific smell in question. The odor digitizing technologies to date don't solve any problems, therefore they are not marketable.
The solution has to include real-time odor recording and digitizing for such a phone to be remotely marketable.
And the solution has to sound snappy or sexy or something.
The thing I never got right in my story (click link to read an excerpt) was the name for the fictional gadget that could record and send smell. It ended up just being a "telegadget" with an "odor coder" attachment. Bleh! About as bad as the Smellophone or the oPhone or the iSmell.
This is where I need your help: what should the gadget in my story be called?
Any ideas are appreciated.
Credits: images derived from free clipart