“Research in storytelling on a multisensory scale” — Interview Mark Meeuwenoord & Wander Eikelboom

@Interactive Storytelling Meetup #1 –14 January 2016

Interview by Klasien van de Zandschulp and Femke Deckers

Famous Deaths is designed by Communication and Multimedia Design (CMD) Breda at the AVANS University of Applied science, the Netherlands, designed and developed by: Marcel van Brakel, Frederik Duerinck, Wander Eikelboom en Mark Meeuwenoord. Drawing: Paul van ‘t Hullenaar.
Smell is a very primal sense which goes directly into your brain and forms an emotional connection.
Famous Deaths installation at IDFA International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam. Photo Nichon Glerum

Sense of Smell is an international co-creation and research project by Communication and Multimedia Design (CMD) Breda at the AVANS University of Applied science, the Netherlands. Within this project, teachers and students explore the amazing world of scent. Their aim is to rethink and prototype the possibilities of scent for strategic communication, way finding, storytelling, interaction and media design.

The installation Famous Deaths is a result of this research project and designed and developed by Marcel van Brakel, Frederik Duerinck, Wander Eikelboom en Mark Meeuwenoord. It is a series of four portraits of celebrities in their final moments. This installation reconstructs these moments as closely as possible, using only sound and scents. This will create a short but intimate experience.

Interactive Storytelling Meetup #1 at Lava Lab

Audio clip of Wander Eikelboom at Interactive Storytelling Meetup #1

At Interactive Storytelling Meetup #1 Meeuwenoord and Eikelboom shared their thoughts and research results on using smell as part of storytelling.

After the meetup we met Mark Meeuwenoord (MM) and Wander Eikelboom (WE) at AVANS University for an interview.

The properties of smell allow you to give an emotional depth to your story.

Can you explain why you think smell is an interesting tool in storytelling?

WE: “Smell is a very primal sense which goes directly into your brain and forms an emotional connection. When you want to engage with an audience - both on the physical level and the emotional level- or if you really want to affect an audience by storytelling, the properties of smell will give extra depth.

So for instance, by adding the smell of smoke or the smell of an explosion, the effect on your audience is that they will feel alarmed and their body goes into a panic state. These kind of emotions can be used as an aspect in your storyline.”

How did you use scent in your storytelling as part of the Famous Deaths installation?

WE: “Within the installation we used documentary stories. The story of Gaddafi, JFK, Diana (Lady Di), Whitney Houston. These are stories people know. Scent is one of the levels we can tweak, we also use a designed audio level and a basic storyline from the historical event that we edit. It’s always a fictionalised interpretation of the story, because we want people to immerse in that experience and experience this from a first person perspective.

The scent is used to amplify certain emotions. Within the Famous Deaths installations the smells are complementary. For instance if you go in the car with JFK you smell the leather of the car, pizza, popcorn, Jackie Kennedy’s perfume. Basically events from the storyline which are amplified by the smell. The smell gives an extra level of engagement. When you are in the final moments of the JFK scenario - when the bullet hits you- you get a whiff of the perfume of Jacky Kennedy. This is a really emotional moment because it’s the moment you die and you get this final smell of your loved one. That’s the engagement the designers strived for.”

… and what do you think are the next steps in designing with scent in a story?

WE: “The next level would be to dislocate the historical narrative, or the narrative itself, through smell. So you can build smellscapes, and build a story from that. How can I take an audience through an emotional journey of a storyline? Which smells do I use for certain types of emotions or fears or plotline? What other kind of media do I use to get this multisensory experience?”

MM: “That’s actually the direction where we are going to, we ask new questions, for example: ‘How can we use scent to create spaces?’ That is what we did physically by building these freezers, we put our audience in a space. The audio and the scent create this space, or story world, in which you are a character. The question we ask ourselves is how scent can be a Virtual Reality machine or tool, not focussed on the typical visual aspect of VR, but on the spatial aspect.”

How did you build the software of the installation?

MM: “We wrote custom made software, written in Max/MSP. It controls the valves, so we can actually program different sequences. We can use it in a very intuitive and quick way, so we can spread a quick dash of a scent and then turn it off again.”

“The software works via an Arduino controllor and a custom made PCB on which we connect all the valves.”

We print space with scent.

… you call your designed system that spreads the smells a ‘smell printer’, why did you use the word printer?

MM: “There is a trend of 3D printing, a lot of development is happening in that area at the moment. What we basically do is printing, we print scent in a confined space. It works like an inkjet printer basically. We have a system of containers, which you can compare to colours from your printer, and then we have a print head, which is basically a nozzle inside of the freezer, that actually ‘prints’ combinations of different scents, or one at the time. It can do that really accurate. We print space with scent.”

Why not use smell with applications like Tinder?

Do you think we can or will use scent in the future to find the perfect match? Like a Tinder of Smell?

MM: “I am not sure of course, but I think this is very possible. The technologies used to work with smell are getting more sophisticated and develop very fast. For instance the development of smell technologies that you can actually use with your phone. So why not use smell with applications like Tinder? All types of media that involve dating, finding partners, or some emotional content involved, are really interesting and also suitable to connect to scent. Scent can get a place in the design processes of these media. Especially when you consider that about 60–70% of your partner’s choice is based on scent.”

Lastly, what designers, artist or projects should we keep our eyes on?

WE: “The most famous artist working with scent is Sissel Tolaas, a Norwegian artist, working from her lab in Berlin. She did numerous projects in which she investigated the power of smell and the relationship between smell and urban landscapes. Another example is Peter De Cupere, a Belgian artist who investigates the bodily fluidity and messiness of smell and art. He’s like a mass production of really divers work, like installation pieces or sculptures or interactive pieces.”

WE: “It’s interesting that also commercial companies are using scent as a way to engage audiences. So the most famous applications nowadays are shopping malls where they use smell to attract an audience. But also within controlling societies where hideous smells are used to disperse audiences.

There have been some experiments with storytelling as well, so there have been people trying to use smell for interactive gaming systems or virtual reality experiences. From the 50–60’s there already have been experiments with adding this storytelling dimension of sense to the cinematic experience. So there has been Smell-O-Vision, big screen Hollywood epic stories, and smaller scale Arcade style installation pieces where you can have multi sensory experiences like smell.”

Interested to learn more? The Sense of Smell research is published in a beautiful book that even smells good :) Buy it here.