We are all familiar with "scratch-and-sniff" products. They have been around since the 1970s - mainly in the form of stickers. But these products are yesterday's news. Researchers have now created a device that could allow us to "text-and-sniff." It is called the oPhone.
Created by David Edwards and colleagues at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in Massachusetts, the oPhone enables odors - labeled "oNotes" - to be sent via email, tweet or text to other oPhones using bluetooth and smartphone attachments.
Edwards, also a student at Michigan Technological University, says the technology may be useful in the world of health care - particularly for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease and mental illness.
The oPhone does not work like a normal cell phone. It does not transmit or receive sounds.
Instead, the cylinder-shaped device consists of a set of disposable "oChips" that can store and emit hundreds of different odors for between 20 and 30 seconds.
The fragrances are created by Marlène Staiger, an aroma expert at a laboratory in France called Le Laboratoire. She deconstructs the scents before capturing them in wax.
The oPhone can text, tweet or email an array of scents via bluetooth and smartphone attachments.
Image credit: Michigan Technological University.
"The oPhone works like a phone for odors. It delivers complex compositions of odors remotely and in a very personal intimate way, in the manner of a standard telephone. Only here the 'words' are aromas," Edwards told Medical News Today.
"This is not just to deliver one odor, but to deliver a sequence of odors, as may happen when you enjoy a meal, or a walk through the forest, or a city."
Edwards said that when the product first launches, the oChips will produce over 300 scents. But he added that one day, it could produce 50,000 or more.
The oPhone is already being tested in conjunction with a coffee shop in Paris, France, called Café Coutume. The aim is to provide customers with a sensory experience.
"Imagine you are online and want to know what a particular brand of coffee would smell like. Or, you are in an actual long line waiting to order. You just tap on the oNote and get the experience," explains Edwards.
Potential treatment for Alzheimer's disease and mental disorders
But more importantly, Edwards says the oPhone could be used to help individuals who suffer from Alzheimer's disease, stress or mental disorders.
At an exhibition in the UK last year, Edwards says he came across a man who had brain damage. As a result, he had lost his memory and his sense of taste and smell.
He believes the oPhone could be used to help restore a person's memory.
He told us:
"We know that olfaction is a strong stimulator of memory, and of course tightly related to taste sensation.
For those dealing with memory loss, or the chance of it, or for those dealing with recovery of mental function, the ability to deliver complex odor sequences coupled with visual signals is an exciting opportunity to improve mental health."
The oPhone will be released to a limited audience for beta testing later this year, which will provide the research team with feedback before releasing a first commercial product at the end of the year.
The team has created a company called Vapor Communications to help develop the technology further and raise investment.
Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that the scent of peanut butter could be used to diagnose Alzheimer's disease.