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Call Me Olfaction: New Mobile Device Transmits Coffee Aromas

The ophone transmits coffee smells

An Ophone prototype

Imagine this: You receive a notification from a friend on your handheld device. But instead of a text or a photo, you get a smell — in this case, the smell of brewed coffee, followed by smells of chocolate, caramel then nuts.

Too goofy to be true? Nope, it’s the latest invention from Le Laboritoire, a Paris-based creative science/art firm led by Harvard Professor David Edwards, which showed off its handheld coffee smell product, the Ophone, this week at the Wired 2013 event in London. The Ophone is the culminating product of the group’s “Virtual Coffee” program, a series of coffee olfaction demonstrations that were part of the “Le Olfactive Project (or, The Third Dimension of Global Communication)”, a science/art installation at Le Laboratoire in Paris earlier this year.

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The product allows users to transmit whiffs of coffee smells by selecting preprogrammed codes. Each of the four smells in the transmission are what Edwards calls coffee’s “olfactory letters,” the kind of base elements that define coffee’s olfactory experience. Edwards’ scope here goes beyond the world of coffee marketing. He believes this kind of smell-based transmission represents a new wave of mobile communication. He shared the concept with Boston.com in August:

In terms of the oPhone’s future potential, there are obvious applications like using smell to persuade you to book a spa treatment, or stop by a bakery to grab a fresh baguette. But Edwards has other ideas, too: “You might go to see a movie, and you’d get a cartridge that’s synchronized with the movie, and integrates with the drama. It could be relevant in gaming — a scent track you could design for a game or any audio or video program.” Edwards is also interested in what you might call therapeutic smells: a unique aroma that helps you fall asleep at night, or makes you less hungry.

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