What does technature smell like? We can have some fun finding out.

Some years ago I bought a tiny gadget from Amazon. It looks like a USB stick but it opens up to reveal a small absorbent pad. Tip a few drops of aromatic oil onto the pad, plug in the stick, and soon your room will fill with gentle perfume. I like lavender oil best. It helps me work when I need to, and relax when I’ve finished. Sadly, NatureSun Aroms is no longer available, and the only substitutes I can find use their own perfumes rather than letting the user choose a preferred oil. Please let me know if you’re aware of something else that does the trick!

Digital Manure

At the moment, cyberspace is not good at conveying physicality, especially not smells, but it’s getting there. In 1995, Nicholas Negroponte, architect and founder of the MIT Media Lab, and author of Being Digital wrote:

“Digital living will include less and less dependence upon being in a specific place at a specific time, and the transmission of place itself will start to become possible. If I could really look out the electronic window of my living room in Boston and see the Alps, hear the cowbells, and smell the (digital) manure in summer, in a way I am very much in Switzerland.”

Twenty-one years later we can certainly watch a live stream of the Alps any time we want to, and probably hear the cowbells too, but the smell of the manure still eludes us.

‘Scentimental Associations’

In this month’s Terrapin Green Newsletter, Sam Gochman writes about what he punningly calls ‘scentimental associations’. In a fascinating article  he explains that the sense of smell was the first sense to evolve in animal cells and arose as a way to recognize and respond to chemicals in the environment. He says:

“olfactory stimulus becomes linked to an emotion, memory, behavior, or physiological response through experience. That is why smelling bacon may make your mouth water or why the scent of charcoal may remind you of a summer camp cookout. A body of research indicates that most responses to odors are due to associative learning and have measurable effects on cognitive performance, stress, and mood.”

He provides a useful table showing the effects of various fragrances:

sense of smell

Referring to a study by Glass et al, he reports that biophilic odors (e.g., summer air) have been shown to evoke positive responses, while those associated with urban environments (e.g., disinfectants) evoked negative responses, he says. “For example, the scent of summer air not only improved mood, but also was identified by study participants to be associated with meadows, grass clippings, and tomatoes.”

Design Strategies

Gochman recommends that olfactory stimuli may be incorporated into design to support a biophilic experience:

  • Odorous building materials such as cedarwood can be used to integrate olfactory stimuli directly into the exposed structure or finishes of the space, contributing to its ambient scent.
  • Mechanical systems may be programmed to appropriately administer biophilic odors via airflow to specific areas at specific times.
  • Vegetated areas such as herb gardens, windowboxes, water features, and plant-lined walkways enhance spaces by designing around the source of the odor and providing access to physical interactions with nature.

Technobiophilic Design

Technobiophilic design connects our digital lives to the natural world so we can feel and perform better. How can the olfactory stimuli described above be implemented in a technature environment such as a virtual reality scene?  It could be that in these early days the best way to approach it might be to simply suggest certain fragrances in VR narratives, for example, and allow the user’s own brain to conjure them. Just, in fact, as writers have always done. Patrick Suskind’s Perfume is the prime example.

Smell-o-Vision has been the Holy Grail of Hollywood for years and nobody has cracked it yet.  I’m sure virtual reality designers are hot on its trail today.What does technature smell like? We can have some fun finding out.

So, what does technature smell like? We can have some fun finding out.