Induced phantosmia – the future tech of digital scent transmission?

Induced phantosmia illustration by NukapaiSo, I was listening to episode two of the new Basenotes podcast, in which the colourful cast chatted about smell-o-vision, and what the future tech for transmitting odours digitally might be like. All sorts of possibilities were covered. Fledgeling attempts at this are already happening (for example, the oPhone), never mind all the various scented concerts and whatnot. All of these require physical aroma materials to be present. As the podcast participants quite rightly pointed out, one of the difficulties with the idea of sending odours digitally from one device to another, is the complex nature of scents themselves. Can you make an approximation of rose with just a handful of materials even though rose oil contains over 350 constituents? Absolutely. Can you more or less get the smell of chocolate with vanillin and a couple of other materials? Sure – especially if you are a masterful olfactory illusionist like Jean-Claude Ellena. (His book The Diary of a Nose includes a delightful section on his fragrant shorthand). Perfumes, if compared to art, could be classed into those which most resemble a detailed oil painting at one end, and images suggested to us by just a few lines of ink at the other. (Of course some perfumes feel more like they’ve been drawn in crayon).

Liam Moore pointed out that maybe part of the charm of fragrance is its fleeting nature; to be able to digitise and endlessly preserve a smell would surely take something away from the experience. (Online perfume retailers would probably disagree).

Well, this was all very thought-provoking. I started thinking in sci-fi terms – how would you actually be able to do this without having to distribute a set of clunky devices with hundreds of aroma materials pre-loaded in them? How would you get around the fact that if you code a scent for such a transmission, the formula will surely not remain secret? Would you ever be able to transmit a full perfume?

Imagine a future in which we’ve moved beyond Google glass and smart watches. Imagine having nano-technology seamlessly fitted into your body (I’m reading a Peter Hamilton novel at the moment, so the concept seems natural).

Still with me? Ok, now consider this: odours are a construct of our mind (for a full explanation of this, I shall now pimp Liam’s ODOU magazine to you once more). Our minds put odours together from various cues. Have you ever experienced the bizarre sensation of phantosmia? Not just imagining a smell, but actually smelling it. In some cases, phantosmia can be a sign of a neurological disorder, so if you get this often or suddenly start experiencing it, you might want to seek medical advice. I get random bouts of phantosmia which don’t seem to be an indicator of anything sinister, but it’s quite bizarre. I’m suspicious of some synaesthetic effect. A particular scene might suddenly taste of tomato. Sometimes I choose my perfume for the day by phantosmic guidance – I might be physically experiencing the smell of Shalimar upon waking. The first time it happened I was convinced someone had been at my perfume drawer.

What if neuroscientists and nano-engineers would collaborate and create a chip which would induce phantosmia in the wearer? Forget about sending orders to a digital device which then puffs a few aroma chems at you. What if you could send messages directly to the brain of the recipient and create the illusion of a specific odour? If our understanding of odour interpretation improves and if we manage to map what actually happens in the brain when we smell something, this could be a viable future technology. Imagine receiving a digital odour signal from anywhere in the world and being able to instantly smell what the sender wants you to.

Of course, as Grant Osborne pointed out, people would undoubtedly use any such technology to send each other farts.

Illustration by Pia Long based on stock images, including green circuit board by botheredbybees.


9 thoughts on “Induced phantosmia – the future tech of digital scent transmission?

  1. I really enjoyed this discussion (here and on the podcast). I do wonder if true ‘smell-o-vision’ would be something that could actually exist and I think your idea of some sort of chip that stimulates our brain to smell things that aren’t there is probably the only way to do it.

    Sampling would be a heck of a lot easier! I can imagine PR agencies now; “Dear Blogger, we’d like to download our latest celebrity fragrance onto your chip today” 😛

  2. Phantosmia is a neat word. I actually experience it every now and then when I think of fragrance ingredients I use in my work as a creative perfumer. A fleeting sensation of the olfactory image of a particular pattern of a molecule more than that of a complex mix but not at will, it is an amusing random event. Brainwave stimulation and activation might be the road for teletransportation of scent unless Chandler Burr is actually right and scent molecules would actually emit some sort of electromagnetic waves?

    • Seems to happen to perfumers more often than would be expected. I wonder whether that itself is a kind of induced reaction by having re-wired the brain…

  3. Thanks to RIFM on Linked In for re-sharing this post. I occasionally have phantosmia, in dreams and sometimes during creative concentration. It’s a delightful surprise each time, which seems the opposite of scent spam! Great discussion Pia.

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