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Smell Ya Later: The World’s First Transatlantic Scent Message Has Been Received

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A Harvard University professor and inventor is behind the world’s first transatlantic scent message that was successfully transmitted Tuesday.

Harvard University student Rachel Field worked with professor David Edwards to develop a scent-based message platform. (Courtesy)
Harvard University student Rachel Field worked with professor David Edwards to develop a scent-based message platform. (Courtesy)

David Edwards is something like a real-life Willy Wonka.

He already invented the inhalable chocolate product known as Le Whif. Now he and Harvard University student Rachel Field are releasing a scent-based message platform called oNotes for use on a new device whose name also begins with the letter ‘o’ – the oPhone.

On Tuesday Edwards traveled to the first oPhone hotspot at New York’s American Museum of Natural History where he received the first across-the-pond scent messages.

They smelled like a macaroon and champagne.

“There was a burst of applause in Paris when it happened,” Edwards said from the airport as he was getting ready to head back to France. “It was gratifying, but it does drive home the point that this is a new way of communicating.”

Edwards founded and runs Le Laboratoire in central Paris. It’s described as a cultural innovation center where art, design, science and food experiments collide.

The inventor is teaming with Vapor Communications, a tech company with offices in Cambridge to release yet another olfactory communication tool called oSnap. That iPhone App tags the photos with 32 unique scents that they say can be combined to create thousands of combinations. They were formulated by a master perfumer.

Edwards said olfactory technology represents a natural evolution in communication.

“It works like a telephone does — or like a television or stereo receiver does — in receiving electronic, magnetic signals,” he explained. “But it has a special way to do that so the aroma can behave like images and sounds do.”

History will utilize the technology to explore the history of olfaction, or human's evolution of smell.

But why did the American Museum of Natural History get involved?

“Sense of smell — and the senses in general — have a very interesting evolutionary history,” Michael Novacek, the senior vice president and provost of science at the museum, wrote in an email. “We are an institution dedicated to, among other things, the study of evolution of life on earth, but our mission also encompasses sharing with the public the most important scientific questions of the day. Undoubtedly, unlocking the secrets of the development of the human brain (which regulates the senses) continues to be a rich area of scientific investigation.”

“Throughout the last 55 million years of primate evolution, olfaction has evolved dramatically," Novacek added. "Primates have traded a good sense of smell for better vision.”

Edwards says a lot of these early scent technologies are designed for foodies. His goal in the future is to create what he called “High-Fidelity” aromas. He plans to open a permanent scent message hot spot in Cambridge this fall.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.


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