What If You Could Snapchat a Scent?

Meet the new technologies that want to transform fragrances into archives.

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.

So while we have long had tools that record images and sounds, we have not really had tools do the same thing for scent. We have not, in general, thought of scent as something that can be processed and preserved into a vessel for memory.

The Madeleine, however -- the "camera" that turns the scents of life into an archive of that life -- proposes a shift in that approach. And it is only the latest technology to do this. The tradition of scent-mapping goes back, it seems, to the 1790s, when the physician and pioneering hygienist Jean-Noël Hallé embarked on an odor-recording expedition of Paris. Hallé had a grand vision that was technologically limited: the equipment he used to document his six-mile expedition along the banks of the Seine started and stopped at his notebook and his nose.

Nearly two centuries later, however, in the 1970s, the Swiss fragrance chemist Roman Kaiser developed the odor-preservation technique he dubbed headspace capture: a process meant to analyze and manufacturer the fragrances of the natural world. Kaiser used his technique to measure and then recreate the scents of a tropical rainforest; scientists and perfumers have since adapted the process to recreate scents of a more quotidian variety. In the 1980s, the scent scientist Braja Mookherjee, working for the fragrance firm IFF, invented a process that allowed technicians to extract fragrant molecules from living flowers, with the ultimate goal of recreating their smells. In the late 1990s, Japanese scientists began developing an "odor recorder" that promised to capture and replicate the world's scents. Today, the odor artist Sissel Tolas uses headspace technology to create Hallé-esque "scratch and sniff" maps of the world. Olivia Alice uses a similar technique to preserve the scents of loved ones that linger on their clothes -- by "deconstructing the clothing and extracting its composite and essential elements." So does Li Jingxuan's "Aromastagram."


These works are incremental steps, and they are as much about making a point as they are about making a memory. But they suggest what might happen when headspace capture further develops, when scent scientists combine with technologists to produce new ways of rendering aroma as a record of the world. While it's likely that the future will see more commercial uses for scent -- the scent of Subway bread, exuded onto a city sidewalk; the aroma of coffee, squirted into a bus; the Smell-o-Vision idea, put to marketing purposes -- it's just as likely that scent capture will also find itself in the hands of everyday people. A 2007 survey of tech experts predicted that scent will be, by 2015, convertible into digital data -- leading to, yes, a smellable Internet.

Their forecast may have been premature, but that doesn't mean it was wrong. Scent, in nature, is data; the question for us humans is how to store it and reproduce it. Radcliffe's Madeleine, and its fellow projects, ask us to imagine what might happen once we've answered that question. What will it mean when we can transform fragrance from a decorator of the world into a document of it? What will happen when we can Snapchat a scent?

Perfumers prize sillage -- the wake of aroma that trails the wearer, lingering after she's gone -- precisely because its sensory residue must be manufactured to exist. Smells are some of the last things in our world, short of time itself, to be left ephemeral. And there is power in the fleeting: to know that this flower, this fire, this particular fragrance of this particular skin, will fade. That knowledge changes how we know these things, how we experience them. We stop to smell the roses not just because they are fragrant, but because they are fleeting. But what might happen when the roses lose that essence and that urgency? What will it mean when scent becomes, like so much else in our heavily mediated world, "infinitely replicable"?