Blog Post

No, a scent wasn’t just sent over the Atlantic Ocean

I recently visited the International Rose Test Garden in Portland, Ore., where more than 7,000 rose plants were in full bloom. The flowers were beautiful, but the smell was the most incredible part. It was so strong the air felt thick.

Smell is strongly linked to memory, and I would have loved to share the scent of those roses along with the photographs I showed my friends and family. Just as motion and sound in a video can sometimes convey more than a photograph alone can, smell can be an important factor in capturing the essence of a place.

At first glance, the oPhone DUO device that went up on Indiegogo yesterday appears to reflect that. For a minimum of $199, backers can pick up a desktop device that emits smells. People can download an app, snap a photo and tag it with smells like “orange” or “chocolate” and send it to a friend who owns the oPhone DUO. The device then outputs those smells, paired with the image. oPhone maker Vapor Communications announced Tuesday that the device allowed the first-ever transmission of a scent across the Atlantic Ocean.

“oPhone introduces a new kind of sensory experience into mobile messaging — a form of communication that until now has remained consigned to our immediate local experience of the world,” Vapor Communications CEO David Edwards said in a statement. “With the oPhone, people will be able to share with anyone, anywhere, not just words, images, and sounds, but sensory experience itself.”

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It’s cute, but more than a little ridiculous. The campaign had only raised $7,322 out of its $150,000 goal as of Tuesday evening, so I’m not the only person to think so. I think the product’s biggest weakness is that it isn’t even communicating the true smell of a place. The device is loaded with “oChips,” which are small cartridges that can output combinations of singular smells like “espresso” or “butter.” They can create more than 300,000 different combinations. But the person sending the smells isn’t actually capturing the smell of where they are and then sending it. Instead, they are just choosing a few tags that describe the smell.

Researchers are actually already working on devices that can capture the true scent of a place and then communicate it. My colleague David Meyer wrote last year about why this is such a difficult feat; it’s not enough to just build a sensor that can measure the different levels of gases in the air. Odor is complex, and accurately reproducing it is difficult.

Someday we may find ourselves using phones that can capture smell and add it to our Instagram posts, just as they can capture our location today. For now, we have devices like the oPhone that can add a little bit of novelty to our photos. Whether that is worth $199 is up to you.