Pixels of Smell
The sense of smell is the most poignant of the human sensorium. Its carrier messages travel at neither of the more glamorous speeds of light (sight) nor sound (hearing), but rather at the much slower speed of an ambient breeze; the speed of an air-pocket infused with odour-carrying molecules nearing closer and closer to a set of nostrils. It's at this steady velocity, that an unexpected whiff catching your olfactory receptors instantly transports you to a forgotten and dormant realm of memories and experiences. A cascading memory-triggering neuronal-firing domino effect swiftly ensues. The smell of sulfur takes you back to your high school chemistry class and the final exam you passed (or failed) with flying colours. Or the lavender extract in someone's morning facewash suddenly brings tears to their eyes because of their late grandmother's fondness for the alluring-smelling flower.
Molecules of memory-evoking catalysts coast through space, latch onto olfactory nerve receptors where then signals speed through to the directly-linked olfactory cortex, embedded within the emotionally-centric limbic system. And each type of molecule of odour is interpreted quite differently by each and every individual's consciousness. The process, although put in basic terms, is quite incredible.
Our primitive forebears were also immersed in a smell-scape; hunting, gathering and just going about their day mainly within a survival capacity. Their modus operandi was centered around the rudimentary (and evolutionary) fight-or-flight complex. In other words, attack the buffalo for dinner or flee from the saber-toothed tiger to avoid being dinner. Their range of olfactory inputs was far narrower than what we have present in today's carbon-emission-plagued-espresso-shot-maker-on-every-street-corner "modern" urban environment. Today, you can literally be exposed to the fetid fumes trailing behind an open garbage truck carrying a local neighbourhood's organic waste to the appetizing aromatic smell of that Thai Tom Yum soup you gobbled up for lunch. But only after being barraged by the shopping mall kiosks' "perfume sprayers", who while gripping a fully-loaded glass bottle with an index finger firmly on the trigger, simultaneously seek your blessing to be sprayed by the latest designer fragrance and then regardlessly, shower you with the latest designer fragrance anyway. A modern-day saber-tooth show-down. Olfactory-style. And all of this happened in less than 24 hours.
That's probably a highly-granular perspective of what's happening. On a more meta-scale, we can sense certain forces or trends at play and their implications on our experiential universe of smell. Socio-economic and technological advancements over the course of human history have each successively introduced new forms of scent due to inventions, material processes, emerging urban sprawls, scientific discoveries, new social organizations and a multitude of other factors. Neanderthal man didn't have the luxury of testing the Chanel N°5 eau de parfum, and conversely, many today probably haven't truly immersed themselves in the natural smells of Earth's core elements as Neanderthal man did. But nevertheless, I think we can safely assume that the olfactive sphere has grown over the past few millennia.
Our current cyber age is pixel and byte-ridden. Information is literally moving through us via electromagnetic waves, interfacing with both our stationery and mobile devices, loading up the latest (and smell-less) snippets of Al Jazeera's breaking news and Facebook status updates. We are plowing the digital universe - the info-verse - cultivating new forms of technological crops via computer code, and apps, touching all types of buttons and screens and overloading our senses mostly with light and sound. Yet good ol' olfaction is still moving steadily at that breezy pace. It really hasn't bothered much with the digital, perhaps because of our lack of odour-integration know-how. Is there a future for smell in this new paradigm? There have been attempts at introducing digital scent technology, creating a more immersive experience for audiences (examples include Smell-O-Vision, AromaRama, iSmell). The iSmell Personal Scent Synthesizer, conceived by DigiScents, which proposed that scent be coded, digitized, sent and "downloaded" via a device, was named one of the 25 worst tech products of all time. There has also been an art initiative mimicking the scent of newly opened Apple products.
But amid these failures and initiatives, we do see a trajectory - to complete the experiential loop so-to-speak. An ambition is to allow the full sensorial realm be easily exchanged and shared via the binary bits of 1's and 0's. The digital age has largely been olfactorily sterile and we want to bring the bits into smell and the smell into bits; a marriage of odour and bit; the pixelization of scent. Advertisers would have a field day with this - the Minority Report on an olfactory high.
As the incessantly increasing amount of information we generate coalesces into more meaning, contextualizing the internet into greater individualized relevancy, we'll be moving (and already have) into the experiential age, where tailored immersive experiences will be readily available across all service fronts. Beyond the experiential age, a potential scenario is fully realizing a simulated reality landscape, not very different to The Matrix. But long before that, terms such as 'consumer' will become misnomers and be replaced by the likes of 'experiential agents' which arguably does have a certain dystopian Big Brother-esque tinge to it (but that's another topic altogether). Interdisciplinary experience designers will be aggressively sought after by organizations with olfactory design being a crucial component to any project. Spatial scent layouts will be a critical dimension to the entire design process, alongside the colour wheel in an illustrator's toolkit and an interior designer's material swatch book.
Similar to the graphic designer's handy set of brushes, wands, eyedroppers, texture libraries, colour palettes and lasso tools, readily-accessible computer applications will offer olfactive-equivalent tools including a scent swatch (based on the primary odours: musky, putrid, pungent, camphoraceous, ethereal, floral and pepperminity), spatial recognition algorithms, diffusion directionality controls and other complementing elements, collectively aiding in developing effective olfactive design experiences. And this layer of design would seamlessly cross-link with other disciplinary outputs such as architectural drawings, retail floor plans, landscape conceptual drawings and interactive kiosk designs.
Social implications? Intrusion of personal scent space, scent-hacking, rise in legal cases due to negative health effects, accelerated extinction of outlawed scents kick-starting an underground culture for museums of odour. And the list goes on.
But on the flip-side, the world may just smell a bit rosier.