A Camera That Captures Scent Instead of Sights

Slate’s design blog.
Oct. 17 2013 11:30 AM

A Camera That Captures Scent Instead of Sights

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A prototype of the Madeleine, a machine that would capture our olfactory memories in a bottle.

Photo courtesy Amy Radcliffe

Thanks to modern technology, we now have plenty of ways to easily (and compulsively) document the sights and sounds of our everyday lives, whether for social networking or posterity. But a digital trove of photographs and audio recordings can’t compete with the sensory jolt of a smell to trigger memories.

A certain cologne might remind you of a person who wore it, even if it can never resurrect the exact chemistry of their perfumed skin. The smell of roast chicken might remind you of Sunday dinners at your grandmother’s house, but never of the exact fragrance of her kitchen.

What if we had a way to capture these fleeting olfactory memories before they disappear into thin air?

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That is the question posed by designer Amy Radcliffe, whose award-winning graduate project at London's Central Saint Martin's last spring caused a bit of a stir. A prototype for what she calls “an analogue odor camera,” her elegant little contraption would use perfumery technology called Headspace Capture to harness the evocative and highly subjective power of scent. Instead of recording light information the way that a camera would to recreate an image, her proposed device would record the molecular information contained in an odor.

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Photo courtesy Amy Radcliffe

“Our sense of smell is believed to have a direct link to our emotional memory,” Radcliffe wrote. “It is the sense that we react to most instinctually and also the furthest away from being stored or replicated digitally. From ambient smell-scapes to the utterly unique scent of an individual, our scent memory is a valuable resource yet to be systematically captured and archived.”

Headspace capture technology is a method pioneered by Swiss chemist Roman Kaiser who for decades has used it to trap, analyze and reconstitute the scents of the natural world in order to make perfume.

Radcliffe has named her prototype the Madeleine in a nod to Proust’s enduring baked-goods-as-time-capsule metaphor, and has made a whimsical video to illustrate a simplistic vision of how the technology works. An object is placed under a glass dome; its scent is extracted via a plastic tube and filtered into a resin trap that records the molecular data of the odor. It is then sent to a lab for analysis where it is recreated into a tiny vial full of liquid memories.

Although the technology has been around for decades in the perfume world, Radcliffe’s gently provocative exercise challenges today’s industrial designers to create viable commercial products that will allow individuals to document, preserve and instantly access the elusive trail of scent that creates our memories.

Developing the kind of friendly analog machine and accessible laboratory back end that would be required to make Radcliffe's vision viable is still in the dream stages, but her little student project has legs. It has made the design week circuit in Milan and London and was on display last month at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

“If an analogue, amateur-friendly system of odor capture and synthesis could be developed, we could see a profound change in the way we regard the use and effect of smells in our daily lives,” Radcliffe wrote. “From manipulating our emotional well-being through prescribed nostalgia, to the functional use of conditioned scent memory, our olfactory sense could take on a much more conscious role in the way we consume and record the world.”

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A vial full of memories.

Photo courtesy Amy Radcliffe

Kristin Hohenadel's writing on design has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Fast Company, Vogue, Elle Decor, Lonny, and Apartment Therapy.