All Tech Considered
3:01 pm
Mon January 27, 2014

You've Got Mail, And It Smells Like 18th Century Paris

Originally published on Wed January 29, 2014 11:17 am

First there was the Smell-O-Vision, a technology that brought aromas to movie theater audiences. Then there was Scratch 'n' Sniff, paper you could smell.

Now, a company in Paris has developed a mobile phone that sends aromatic text messages. It's called the oPhone — "o" for olfactory.

David Edwards, the mastermind behind the oPhone, is a Harvard University professor and the founder of Le Laboratoire in Paris. He and his students thought up a way to transmit all kinds of aromas, "from bread and flowers to the smell of Paris 300 years ago," he says.

These aromas are preprogrammed into the oPhone device, which has four small fingernail-sized chips that act as "ink cartridges for aroma," Edwards says. Air flows through them in different ways to produce various smells.

On one end, a user can type a message and attach a related smell, and someone with an oPhone on the receiving end will get a small whiff.

Edwards says communication is just missing something without a smell. "Clearly, [there's] a big difference between me saying to you the word 'croissant,' or even showing you a picture of a croissant, and you smelling a croissant," he says.

He's working with businesses like coffee shops to make the oPhone part of the consumer experience. Edwards says oPhones will be for sale in late fall, although you can't record your own smells yet.

"However, being able to transmit the aroma of what I'm experiencing through a kind of a camera is imaginable, so I think that will be coming," he says.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Remember Scratch N' Sniff, paper you can smell? Or Smell-O-Vision, a technology that didn't quite catch on that was supposed to bring smell to movie audiences.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Or what about the Smell Master 3000 from the 1994 movie "Richie Rich"?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "RICHIE RICH")

EDWARD HERRMANN: (as Richard Rich Sr.) We have glasses to help us see better and hearing aids to help us hear better. Why shouldn't we have something to help us smell better?

CHRISTINE EBERSOLE: (as Regina Rich) We do, dear. It's called Chanel.

SIEGEL: Well, now a company in Paris has developed a mobile phone that sends aromatic text messages. It's called the oPhone, O for olfactory. And the mastermind behind it...

DAVID EDWARDS: David Edwards. I'm the founder of the Laboretoire in Paris, and I'm a professor at the University of Harvard.

CORNISH: He and his students thought up a way to transmit all kinds of smells.

EDWARDS: Aromas that range from bread and flowers to the smell of Paris 300 years ago.

CORNISH: The aromas are pre-programmed into the oPhone. Type a message and you can attach a smell that you think relates. Someone with an oPhone on the receiving end will get a whiff.

SIEGEL: Why do this? Well, David Edwards says communication is just missing something without a smell.

EDWARDS: Clearly, a big difference between me saying to you the word croissant or even showing you a picture of a croissant and you smelling a croissant.

SIEGEL: Edwards says oPhones will be for sale later this year although you can't record your own smells yet.

EDWARDS: However, being able to transmit the aroma of what I'm experiencing through a kind of a camera is imaginable, and so I think that will be coming for sure.

SIEGEL: And he's working with businesses like coffee shops to make the oPhone part of the consumer experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.