Decoding the Essence of Memory with AI in Scent Replication

Emerging Technology

Olfactory Odyssey

Jan 22, 2024

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Back in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, I found myself taking long leisurely walks through my East Los Angeles neighborhood. Strolling with my dog became a daily ritual, one that introduced me to a rich array of scents that had previously eluded me amidst the hustle of LA life. It was the first time I had taken note of the seasonality of smells, and I began collecting an eclectic mix of herbs, flowers, and fruit on every walk.  One day it dawned on me: Why not encapsulate the distinctive blend of Southern California sage, citrus, and rosemary into a candle? This idea was not just about preserving the fragrance; it was about trying to hold onto that moment in time.

What started as a quest to capture the scent of the neighborhood has become a full-blown obsession. Crafting these scents is both a science and an art, a delicate balance of blending base, heart, and top notes as guided by a fragrance wheel.  Despite my arsenal of essential oils, meticulously gathered over the years, my ability to perfectly recreate scent seemed elusive as ever.

Nietzsche once described the sense of smell as “our most refined instrument,” a poignant testament to its profound impact.  Scent wields the unique power to anchor us to a specific moment or emotion, effortlessly transporting us through time to cherished memories, and forging deep, inherent connections with people and places. 

Contemplating the elusive nature of scents in my candle-making endeavors, I began to explore the potential of harnessing machine learning and the advancements in sensory sciences to not just capture, but faithfully recreate these evocative and complex smells.

Since the 1980s, researchers have been developing instruments/hardware called electronic noses (e-noses for short), which help us detect particular scent molecules. While their evolution has been significant, the full potential of e-noses remains largely untapped in commercial products, with their applications still emerging. Researchers in the field believe they are on the brink of a major breakthrough with the development of the Principle Odor Map (POM).

principle odor map

Just as we use RGB and CMYK as foundational color guides, enabling a spectrum of color combinations and hues, the Principal Odor Map offers a similar guide for scents. By defining primary odors, we open the door to recreating any conceivable scent, capturing the multidimensional essence that our noses perceive. Wild, right?

Although the quest for a perfect scent model continues, an AI algorithm known as the graph neural network is well on its way to making it a not-so-distant reality. It’s trained on fragrance industry datasets of more than 5000 molecules,  their structures converted and tagged into graphs. So far it has demonstrated an ability to detect scents with an accuracy akin to human descriptors, marking a significant step toward digitally capturing and replicating the nuanced world of aroma.

The POM comes with a slew of practical limitations, and further rounds of research will need to happen before it can be commercialized.  But still, I started to think about what this olfactory digitized future might look like in physical form. What are the novel interactions we might encounter with this technology and what design principles are defined within the space? How can we more intentionally integrate scent into our daily lives and accurately recall and reproduce those scent experiences at any time?

In an attempt to answer some of these questions, I created the concept of the ScentCapture sphere. It is a manifestation of my innermost olfactory desires–think of it as an abstraction analogous to a camera or a field recorder, but strictly for scent. Click and drag the 3D model below

capture button: enable scent capture with the click of a button

ScentCapture can use digitized E-noses to record, organize, tag, and combine smells to create AI-generated unique scents. With a simple click of a button and an interactive touchscreen that fits comfortably in your palm, it provides a portable way to capture smells. The form factor behind ScentCapture has convenience in mind. Using the capture button is a lot like taking a photo with a camera, while the shape plays into my love of the Pokeball and its inherent catching abilities. It’s designed to be light and simple to use. 

After a scent is captured, the device is able to map it to its closest scent relative—show the presence of a present scent, and provide pairing and creative naming suggestions based on the base, middle, and top notes. You can select a range of capture dates to create an amalgamation of scents or encapsulate singular captures. Once a user has created a custom scent combination, they could potentially transmit the scent to a factory that has the ability to reproduce an instant digital sample, like the perfume explorations Carto by Gavaudan has been testing.  Once the sample has been created, the custom scent could be recreated as a perfume, candle, or essential oil. Looking further into the future, ScentCapture could generate smells on demand and be deployed into diffusers to fill entire spaces.  

With this device in hand on one of my walks through Los Angeles, I could effortlessly record the fragrance of jasmine clusters and the ripe guava tree, whose branches drape over my neighbor's fence. When there's an elusive aroma I can't name, my ScentCapture would become an olfactory cartographer, mapping the aromatic journey of my stroll, and identifying the unknown scent as Bay Laurel mixed with the earthy undertones of silty soil

During business trips, when I felt waves of homesickness, I could rely on my ScentCapture to transport me back home. I would select the profile I've named "Springtime in LA," and feel those pangs gently fade away.

The possibility of deploying recreated smells makes me wonder what kind of impact something like ScentCapture could have on improving memory—particularly for those with conditions like dementia. A recent study at the University of California, Irvine found that when older adults were exposed to a range of different scents each night, their memories measurably improved. Another recent University of Oxford study found that the olfactory system is highly responsive to training; researchers wrote  that the “sense of smell may facilitate transfer of learning to other sensory domains.”.

The ability to recreate smells opens doors for our perception of other humans and the natural world. Scent philosopher Annick le Geurer encapsulates that line of thinking.  “Smell is revelatory not just of substances, but also of moods, climates, and even existential states. It is a subtle tool of knowledge that allows for an intuitive and prelinguistic understanding.”

I’m reminded of Jose Chavarria’s explorations on how to change the human perception of reality through a series of masks inspired by animals. His speculative work, titled “Interface,” enables us to experience the way other creatures perceive the world. His bat-inspired echolocation mask simulates the feeling of bouncing sound waves to perceive distance, while his python-inspired infrared-sensing mask lets users feel infrared emissions, giving them a  sense of the nearness of other living creatures. 

interface bat mask

Taking inspiration from Chavarria's work, and the beauty of nature, we might move toward more organic forms where ScentCapture becomes one of many biomimetic multi sensory devices resembling a barnacle.

biomimetic multisensory speculative design

I imagine this multi-sensory device would be equipped with modular attachments with the ability to pick and choose which senses the user wants to amplify, fundamentally transforming our perception of reality. With the capability to precisely replicate every sensory experience, we can paint a more comprehensive and vivid picture of our collective human experiences.

Such a device could profoundly enhance our understanding of the self, foster deeper connections among people, and even expand our empathy toward other species. It holds the potential to not just replicate experiences but to create a bridge between different realms of perception, offering us a chance to experience the world through an entirely new lens. This exploration of sensory integration could be a key to unlocking a more profound, shared understanding of our world and each other.