SMELL: How our insatiable desire for experience is giving rise to sensory perception and the renaissance of smell

Recently, in conversation with Bernardo Fleming, Head of the Olfactive Design Studio at International Flavors & Fragrances, he gave an insightful analogy to this current moment in time when the rising interest for smell is spanning industries and disciplines; he coined this “the renaissance of smell”. Renaissance. Great word. I can also see how many artists, academics, startups, organizations and special interest groups are increasingly working with this elusive sense — far more than ten years ago when I first found myself in this space.

This recent surge of interest makes me wonder what has taken us so long to find an interest in our sense of smell; and what is to come out of our re-engagement with this forgotten sense. Having considered and contemplated these questions, I thought I would share some of my thoughts. The first area that peaked my interest was why had we, over the centuries, neglected our most primal sense in the first place:

Why Smell was Relegated to a Secondary Role- a (very) brief history

The birth of western thought, intellect, and reason, and thus the basis for science today stems from the ancient Greeks. Plato assigned the sense of sight as the foundation for philosophy; Aristotle provided a clear hierarchy where he considered sight and hearing nobler in comparison to touch, taste, and smell.

Both philosophers favored a hierarchical approach to sensory perception- and smell was placed at the bottom of this hierarchy. That is understandable. Logic and reason could be seen and heard, but not smelt. Furthermore, the majority of people did not have regular access to baths, and as for the center of towns, sewage systems were very basic, and the odors that resulted were terrible. Therefore, smell was not considered something of beauty nor a discipline worth studying. The Enlightenment philosophers and Industrial Revolution did not help either. No less than 200 years ago an urban city like London used the River Thames as an open sewer (constructing a modern closed sewage system only in the 1860s).

However today Smell has been put back on the map through a myriad of factors, and three reasons I believe in particular: Our desire for experience, academic progress, and the rise of the gourmet palette.

Our Insatiable Desire for Experience

One key aspect sets Millennials and Gen Z apart from previous generations: They are willing to pay more for experiences than for things. It’s no revelation that this generation is hungry for experiences- not just for themselves but also as an excuse to broadcast their unique fun packed lives to the world. Unicorns like Snapchat and Instagram have recognized this insatiable thirst, and have the valuations to prove how fundamental this is to Gen Z.

Marketers and brands have noticed this gap and are already providing us with the tools to capture our most vivid realities; from GoPros to most recently 360 videos or going live on Facebook. Such experiential technologies create a sense of physical place and support Millenials in their quest for sharing their lives.

Although Millenials may be preoccupied with broadcasting to their networks what they are experiencing, the fact that they are venturing out to find ‘cool’ new experiences are making them, perhaps subconsciously, more discerning about all the elements of the experience- including flavors and smells.

We still cannot transmit and share all the sensory elements of our realities. Which maybe is not such a bad thing. Today, brands spend tremendous efforts to create awe-inspiring physical experiences that we can only truly be a part of with all our senses by being there in person. So that is what we do. We usually go with a friend, connect with them while re-engaging with our senses and creating shareable content.

Technologists and marketers are now seeing increasing budgets towards immersive brand experiences including the smell experience; from the smell of Starbucks, to the various options in the fragrance customization of your BMW 7 Series interior, to the scent in the latest hotel lobby, smell is taking on an increasingly important role. Experiential designers are now in more demand than ever. As a result, the smell olfactory element is growing in increasing importance when designing these experiences.

The thirst for experiences has led to the rise in sensory engagement and sensory awareness. Millenials are becoming increasingly aware that experiencing all the senses, although not always transmittable over technology, leads to greater enjoyment and contentment of the Now.

Academic Progress and Human-Computer Interaction

Our need for experience has finally led the scientific world towards a holistic approach to researching sensory perception– rather than looking at each sense in isolation.

For example, Prof. Charles Spence at the Crossmodal Research Lab at Oxford University, studies the integration of information across our senses, most notably, the way we eat and drink. They want to understand how to form, or even manipulate, our perception of flavor — as demonstrated during the Gastrophysics Flavor Hacking Workshop at Oxford in March 2017. Human-computer interaction (HCI) has a significant role to play as the following use cases suggest.

Electronic odor transmission

Over at the Imagineering Institute in Iskandar, Malaysia, Dr. Adrian David Cheok focuses his efforts on tackling the challenge of transmitting odor molecules through phones and computers. He is working on directly stimulating the tongue and nostrils through electronic signals and thermal energy impulses to generate the perception of flavors and smells directly on our bodies.

Sensory interaction

SCHI Lab in Sussex, United Kingdom, Dr. Marianna Obrist, on the other hand, explores tactile, gustatory, and olfactory experiences as novel interaction modalities. Some applications include 9D TV, in-car olfactory displays and mid-air touch, as was displayed at the Tate Sensorium. But one of their most recent research areas is the study of blind user preferences for sensory substitution devices.

It is important to highlight that these two labs, the Imagineering Institute and SCHI lab, are the only two focusing exclusively on multi-sensory HCI — a very specific space. This allows for immediate knowledge transfer opportunities, shared learning and synergies within the labs, which is what is needed in order to bring innovations in smell and multisensory technology to the next level.

Smell Fiction

MIT Media Lab, also in the HCI discipline, has experimented with smell through ambient displays and wearables. Most recently, the Design Fiction Group has opened discussions, which smell and ethics, societal and cultural norms — with projects like “Open Source Estrogen”, “Hormone Microperformance” and not to forget the “Smelfie” talk at TEDxBeaconStreet this year.

The Rise of the Gourmet Palette

Our palates have also become more refined as a result of our desire for experiences, and this translates into numbers: Our total personal consumption spending doubled in the past 15 years. Through food, the sense of smell is playing an important part in some of the most enjoyable parts of the day- mealtime. Food so often brings people together to have a fun, shared experience. This makes the sense of smell an even more powerful tool to evoke the memories of important, food-centered pleasures in people’s everyday lives.

Who could have predicted the advent and success of third wave coffee three decades ago? That entire supply chains would be redesigned to serve customer demand for the finest coffee beans from Guatemala?

We are also becoming far more knowledgeable about the products we consume. Today, an engineer in San Francisco can describe the various flavor dimensions and roasting techniques involved in his single origin coffee, whereas 30 years ago he might not have had the palette or vocabulary to do so.

Maybe this has something to do with popularity of cooking shows, maybe even the coffee labs inside Google’s offices or the new norm in the millennial tech world for company provided free, unlimited gourmet food buffets. Either way, flavor perception and thus sensory perception is coming to the forefront of our awareness and with it, the palettes and vocabulary to describe it.

If these well catered tech guys developing the world of tomorrow can notice the smoky, nutty, herbal, and fruity elements in coffee, then designing for smell could truly just be a nostril away.

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All in all, there is no doubt that a real renaissance of smell is on its way. What our ancestors considered inadequate or not worthy of their time is now growing in popularity — aided by our desire for experience, academic progress, and the gourmet palette. And who knows where this spark of interest could lead us?

The experience economy is already well on its way to leveraging our senses. Brands entertain us with flagships, pop-ups and immersive environments where we can interact with products and services from a multisensory perspective. But the real potential of smell as a medium goes far deeper than entertainment alone.

Indeed, the enormous amount of time we spend on electronic devices and screens has little by little fueled an inner wish: Re-engaging with all our senses. And olfaction is by far the most neglected one. Even today, scientific research tends to prioritize sight and sound — on which cognitive psychology focuses 90% of its efforts for instance.

So does this mean that we may soon transit from a renaissance to a revolution of smell? I believe so. However, it will require us to look at smell not just as an add-on in the air, but fundamentally redesign entire systems and frameworks around it to gather olfactory insights as well.