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A Camera For Capturing Smells For You To Sniff Later

A picture captures just a fleeting moment in time, but very little of what makes a moment special. What if you could also use some of your other senses to help send you back?

Scent is the most ephemeral scent. And while it may disappear the quickest, it manages to remain intensely evocative of the memories associated with it. So, what if it were possible to capture a scent the way we could a picture, to better remember moments from our past with more than just visual cues?

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That’s the question artist Amy Radcliffe is asking with her project Scent-ography, an experimental “camera” that’s, in Radcliffe’s world, “an idealistic scenario for domestic odor capture and synthesis” based on a perfume technology called “headspace capture” that was developed in the 1980s. “While the technology is all there,” Radcliffe admits, “there is a lot of work needed to make the scenario a viable service for public consumers.”

But in an ideal setting, here’s how it would work: an “odor trap” (a glass tube filled with an absorptive resin) receives “smelly air” surrounding an object via an air pump. The resin traps the volatile organic compounds which compose the scent, and a reading of the compounds is taken through gas chromatography mass spectometry, a technique often used by perfumers to create a chemical reading which can later be used to recreate a fragrance (creating a sort of “negative” to be “developed” later). The scent is stored in a solution created through some lab analysis which Radcliffe calls “a bottled memory.” (“The reconstituted fragrance can be stored in liquid form and opened to trigger instinctual emotional recall.”)


Like Radclife explained, the technology is nothing new, but the attempt to package it in a user-friendly, aesthetically pleasant “camera” (which she named the Madeleine, get it?) is. “It should in theory work for anything you can smell,” explains Radcliffe. “Although the next stage of testing the project will also aim to figure out if some types of smells work better than others, odors with more top notes for example as opposed to heavy base notes.”

Radcliffe conceives of the project as the way to achieve “a post-visual past time,” a clever expression in an age of commodified and ubiquitous visual nostalgia with apps like Instagram. Scents, on the other hand, have no filter, no digital mediation. Perhaps they’re a more direct link with the past.

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About the author

Zak Stone is a Los Angeles-based writer and a contributing editor of Playboy Digital. His writing has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, NYMag.com, Los Angeles, The Utne Reader, GOOD, and elsewhere. Visit his personal website here.

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