What If You Could Snapchat a Scent?

Meet the new technologies that want to transform fragrances into archives.
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Shutterstock/Sofia Andreevna

Fresh-brewed coffee. Towels, just out of the dryer. The sour-sweet of a summer sidewalk. Sweat. Ocean. Brownies baking. Lilies blooming. Musk. We tend to classify scent according to the way we experience it: as a sensation, ephemeral and ethereal, powerful in large part because of intangibility. In that, however, we tend to be wrong. Scent is stuff like any other stuff -- little bits of the world that shed and sweep and waft, making their way, finally, to our noses. Only at the point when the miasmic world meets the human mind does scent take on its mysterious power to alert us to danger, to seduce us to action, to lull us into memory.

But what if fragrance could be made ... non-fleeting? What if it could be made permanent -- a document of experience, lived and seen and smelled? Over in the U.K., the designer Amy Radcliffe has created a project that explores that idea. It's a device that uses some of the best scent-preservation technology we have, headspace capture, to take, effectively, "snapshots" of scents. It works like an analog camera, and its aim is to convert sensory experience into a vehicle for nostalgia. Imagine being able, Radcliffe suggests, to take a "scent" picture of that blissful day at the beach. Or of your newborn son. Or of your ailing mother.

Radcliffe's device is called the Madeleine. As in, yes, Proust's cake -- a baked good that, activated by the power of scent memory, transformed into a time machine.

The Madeleine exploits, basically, the stuff-iness of scent. To use it, you place a funnel over an environment or object whose scent you want to preserve. A pump then transfers that scent-laden air to an odor trap made of Tenax, a porous polymer resin that absorbs the volatile scent particles. The result is a "snapshot" of scent only in the broadest sense: capturing the smell of a strawberry can take several minutes, while preserving the more subtle scent of an aroma in the air -- campfire, sea, pie -- can take an entire day. 

That slowness is both a bug and a feature: part of the point of the Madeleine is to encourage its users to associate scent with nostalgia. Images' increasing ease of capture, combined with our abundant means of storing them, has led us to a kind of photographic promiscuity. Digital images have become, at this point, "infinitely replicable," Radcliffe told me -- and, as a result, "almost disposable." But there's value, she says, in applying slowness to the process of archiving -- power in the attempt to add a bit of ritual to deciding what, and whom, we choose to remember.

The Madeleine, Radcliffe says, uses "a scenario designed to be very similar to 35 mm photography," in that you take a snapshot of your scent, send it away -- in this case, to a fragrance lab that uses a gas chromatography-mass spectrometry machine to process the scent molecules -- and receive the results later on. It's the pre-digital model of photo-processing, one predicated on curation and, then, anticipation. You click, you send, you wait.

The Madeleine, to that end, is a working prototype, but it is also "an unproven prototype," Radcliffe is quick to point out. Rendering archived aromos with full fidelity will require much more input, she says, from perfumers and scent scientists. The device as it exists at the moment is instead a proof of concept that is also an exploration of an idea. "Rather than aiming to produce a working product," Radcliffe explains, the project "was more to open this discussion on the power of scent memory." 

To smell, after all, is to engage in an act of autonomic intimacy: it's to take in invisible bits of the world, to process them into sensation, to associate them with something familiar -- whether that something be a plastic trash bag or fresh-cut grass or Grandma's kitchen. Despite that (and, probably, because of it), smell is perhaps the sense that has been most neglected by technology. Our media, from our books and our magazines to our television and our Internet, are biased toward vision and hearing, sight and sound. Our devices and their interfaces -- tangible, tactile -- exploit the nuances of touch. Even taste, that oh-so-sensory of senses, marches forward armed with technological augmentation: we are, as a culture, obsessed with innovation in food preparation, using new machines and new chemicals to create flavors and textures never before imagined.

Scent, however, is in many ways the sense that has been left behind. We have not, yet, found a way to convert odor into a medium. Perfumery may be a science as well as an art form. Medicine may be exploring the power of scent for diagnostic purposes. And there are, definitely, entire industries devoted to the manufacture of new scents for commercial ends. Axe Body Spray is its own kind of technological achievement. But Axe Body Spray is also a testament to our biases when it comes to scent: the technologies we've developed in the name of science-izing scent have treated fragrance largely as additive rather than preservative: they have sought to add manufactured odors to the ones that have naturally evolved in the world. We've taken our sweat and our sweet and our sour -- the molecules that meet to render the aromas of life -- and focused our energies on covering them up. Chanel No. 5 (and Secret deodorant, and Glade candles, and Febreze fabric spray) are commercial products, but they are also shots fired in the ongoing saga of man-versus-nature.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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