Design

Harvard Prof Invents a Phone That Sends Smells


The oPhone

Courtesy Vapor Communications

The oPhone

As elevator pitches go, isn’t “Snapchat for smells”—at first whiff—a little suspect? Not so, says David Edwards, Harvard professor and creator of what he calls the oPhone–an app-plus-atomizer combo that lets users tag images with scents and send them around the Web: “We think it’ll just be a lot of fun to be able to include olfactory notes as a wink, an emoticon.”

The oPhone, which Edwards invented with Rachel Field, a former student of his at Harvard, will come as a pair of cylindrical receivers, each containing scent chips with enough aromas to create over 300,000 unique smells. The chips are small, long-lasting, and economical, Edwards says, and can be replaced much like ink cartridges. A pack of four will cost $20. The phones themselves will be available for $149 in preorder mode on crowdfunding platform Indiegogo as of June 17.

On the same day, users will be able to download a free app, called oSnap, and use it to tag an image with a scent from a select palette of aromas. (Pranksters: Noxious odors are not included.) Hotspots equipped with oPhones in Paris and Cambridge will let people smell the message in the form of an aromatic cloud. The fleeting, intimate quality of the smell is a key difference from other aroma-infusing devices.  “We’re interested in very small volumes of aroma that can come and go, so we can deliver a very significant amount of information aromatically,” Edwards says. ”It’s only for you, not your neighbor.”

Sure, this sounds like just another Internet hoax, but Edwards has a reputation for exploring the intersection of technology and food, producing Willy Wonka-esque concepts that include edible packaging and inhalable caffeine and chocolate and attracting venture capital funding from the likes of Spark Capital. With the oPhone, Edwards says he is hoping to create a language around scents, centered first on the “vocabularies” of food and coffee.

Instead of using terms such as “malt,” “cocoa,” and “barley” to inadequately approximate how a certain coffee smells, producers and vendors will be able to simulate the aroma for their customers. For the initial set of coffee chips, Edwards and his team at the “cultural creation center” Le Laboratoire, in Paris, worked with specialty coffeehouse Café Coutume to articulate the aromatic profiles of four single-origin coffees.

Will we someday be able to capture and send a smell as we would a text message? That’s the ultimate goal, Edwards says, but it remains at the outer limits of what’s possible. For now, oPhones will be the domain of foodies and coffee enthusiasts looking to add a dimension to their Instagram (FB) shots.

Lanks is the design editor of Businessweek.com.

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