Harvard Scientists Send the First Transatlantic Smell via iPhone

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
June 17, 2014

Harvard professor and oNote co-inventor David Edwards shares the scent with a member of the audience. (Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo Tech)

NEW YORK — Did you hear about the latest iPhone app out of Harvard? It really stinks.

Harvard scientists successfully transferred the first scent from Paris to New York on Tuesday morning via an iPhone app. The champagne and passion fruit macaroon-scented message was transferred via a new communication platform called the oPhone.

It works like this: A custom-made app allows you to take a photo of something and “tag” it with a few aroma notes (from more than 3,000 scents). These smells — which range in category from “Paris Afternoon” to “Plantation” — are transferred via a pipe-like smelling station called an oPhone Duo and are controlled by an iPhone app called oSnap.

When you send an oNote, your recipient will click a link that leads him to a photo, as well as the specific aromatic notes you have chosen. When connected to the oPhone Duo, the hardware piece, it’ll emit slight scents from two separate pipes to be smelled in conjunction with the message. Otherwise, the app will just offer some vivid description of the scent your sender is trying to convey. 

You don’t have to own the oPhone hardware, which starts at $149 on the company’s Indiegogo page, to send or receive a smell. Anyone without the contraption will still be able to tag images using the oSnap app (out in the App Store now) and mark it with around 16 different high and low notes. Currently, user creations range from “Lady Gaga” to “My Room” to “Smoky Beach.”

Screenshots from the oSnap app.

The oPhone, available to purchase on Indiegogo for $149, will be available to test at certain hotspots in New York, Paris, and Cambridge. (Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo Tech)

The device’s co-inventor, Harvard Professor David Edwards, hopes to spread this new technology to the hands of consumers over the next year via “hotspots.” The American Museum of Natural History, where the initial demonstration took place, will host the first oPhone hotspot in the United States for three consecutive weekends starting July 12. Other hotspots will be located in Paris cafes and in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Anyone who has made an oSnap via the app will be able to access it and smell its aroma in real life, using a Duo device at any of these special locations. 

Edwards first began developing the idea for the his communication system in collaboration with a 23-year-old student, Rachel Field. The two hope to see it used in foodie cultures—to be paired with the images of meals that many already send to their friends, or share on social media sites like Instagram or Facebook.

“Say I’m a barista and I have these great coffees, and I have difficulty describing them,” Edwards said at the demonstration. “You come to the cafe, you’ve got the iPad, ask, ‘What kind of coffee is that? and you can play it, get the primary and secondary and the mixed notes. It’s an education; it helps you talk to the barista. From the retail point of view, it’s a real way of reaching out and saying, ‘Get some coffee.’ ”

Edwards documented the aromas of the above spread of food, using the oSnap app. (Alyssa Bereznak/Yahoo Tech)

The guts of the oPhone Duo consist of several small circular plastic pieces, what Edwards calls the “neurons” of the contraption. Inside each neuron are four air holes, three of which are packed with dry, aromatic material. When the oSnap app sends a signal to the oPhone, indicating which aromas to conjure, the machine spins the circular neurons so their holes align with an air current. The smell is then pulled up.

A pack of four neurons will sell for $20. Like an ink cartridge, these pieces supply a vast number of smells depending on what combinations you ask for.

Edwards admits that, “like playing the piano,” learning to identify aromatic notes is a process that takes time. “Once you get used to it, you get better at it,” he said at the event. “We’re really intrigued to see how people are using this.”

The oPhone isn’t the first gadget to enable an iPhone owner to experience smells. My colleague David Pogue reviewed a dongle from Pop Secret that attached to the iPhone and could puff out the scent of freshly popped popcorn. Oscar Mayer released a similar contraption that simulated the smell of bacon frying in the pan. 

The oPhone can produce more sophisticated scents, though it’s not nearly as mobile as those gimmicky dongles. And that’s where the Harvard team’s other invention in the pipeline comes in: the oPhone Uno, a contraption that would theoretically allow you to dock your mobile phone to constantly receive smells.

“Ultimately if there’s enough interest here, you want this to be with you in your pocket everywhere.”

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her.