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The Smell of Data

Techmog is a liquid network of engineers, programmers, designers and entrepreneurs in and around London who report on the industry we work in, from an insider's view. We're always looking for Londoners with something interesting to say. Send an email to info@techmog.com if you would like to contribute to the website.

Lily

Creative Technologist, maker, writer, geek. @Lily_2point0
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In our digital age, technology has been taking into account human senses, enhancing them, transcribing them to an immaterial world of pixels, be it through VR, haptic feedback, or bone conduction. Yet, taste and smell seem to be left out. Is it because it involves a complex chemical process? Or because since the 1965 Smell-O-Vision hoax (or even Google Nose for April fool’s 2013), it is considered a bit of a gimmick?

In 2015, FeelReal tried to combine VR and smell in a helmet, for a truly immersive gaming experience, but failed to meet their Kickstarter target. Nevertheless, we have strong connections with scents, that can be used to trigger memories, or even wake you up gently.

What if smell helped us become one with our digital selves by making use of its primary warning function, and thus helping us securing our data better? That’s what the Dutch team behind the Smell of Data is trying to achieve with their little device, shown last month at the Science Museum in London.

Photo Credit: Simone C Niquille

Photo Credit: Simone C Niquille

Techmog had a chat with Leanne Wijnsma, one of the minds behind the project.

TM: How did the project originate?

LW: Last year I was invited by the Dutch Cultural Media Fund to collaborate with a media maker from another discipline. They connected me to filmmaker Froukje Tan. We were given time to think about the problems around Big Data and find alternative ways of storytelling.

TM: There is quite a leap between Big Data and the sense of smell; why focus on it?

LW: I’m an experience designer and smell-maker. I started researching digital scents and realised that their use is only to make everything more happy and sweet: the smell of oven-fresh potatoes coming from the television during a cooking show or a text message from your lover with the scent of roses. So we took a step back an thought: “what is the true function of smell?” And the answer is: survival. Smell is a warning mechanism. In the past we have always used our sense of smell for hunting and gathering. In recent years this has literally moved to a digital environment, but our noses can no longer warn us of the lurking dangers in that online wilderness.

Photo Credit: Leanne Wijnsma

Photo Credit: Leanne Wijnsma

This is how the Smell of Data came about. We are returning to smell as a warning mechanism by adding a smell to data. Compare it with gas; the gas used in kitchens was odourless until accidents started happening, then a smell was added to it. Since then we can be warned in case of gas leaks and the amount of casualties has dropped immensely. A lot of accidents are happening with data leakage as well. If we learn to use the Smell of Data the same way as we do the smell of gas, the Internet will become much more instinctive. It will help Internet users to understand their digital environment better and protect themselves with simple tools that can ensure online privacy and stop their data from leaking.

So we took a step back an thought: “what is the true function of smell?” And the answer is: survival. Smell is a warning mechanism.

TM: Could you tell us a bit more about the people involved in the project?

LW: I started the project with filmmaker Froukje Tan. During the research we were in touch with many privacy experts in The Netherlands and at some point we approached ScentAir who started developing samples for us. While I was focused on the research and the development of the scent, Froukje Tan documented the whole process on film. We met with sniffer dogs and their trainers at Schiphol Airport to learn about how smell is connected to action. 

At the very last stage I met Jip de Beer and Robert van Leeuwen at a Science Hackathon. Together we build this very first working prototype that eventually was launched at the Science Museum in September 2016. 

TM: What does data smell like?

LW: The most important thing is that the smell had to be completely new. It wouldn’t work if you already associate it to a holiday with your grandma, or your morning bike ride. I also didn’t want the smell to be too pleasant (otherwise it will become alluring to leak data) and it also couldn’t be too foul (otherwise people don’t even want to try). 

I started a library of warning smells. I brewed smells in my own kitchen and tested and mixed them. It had to become a warning smell, it needed to be artificial, but I still wanted some natural elements to it in order for people to trust it.

What  does the final result smell like? You have to smell it yourself, there’s only one answer: data. To fulfil its purpose, people will first have to get familiar with it before it can trigger a reaction. 

It had to become a warning smell, it needed to be artificial, but I still wanted some natural elements to it in order for people to trust it.

TM: How does the dispenser work?

LW: The device has an ARM Cortex microcontroller at its core. When paired to a personal device – such as a tablet or smartphone – through WiFi, it can recognise various instances where personal data is vulnerable, which triggers a release of perfume. We are currently working on adjusting the amount release depending on the severity of the leak. We are also experimenting with paring through Bluetooth or 3G/4G.

Photo Credit: Simone C Niquille

Photo Credit: Simone C Niquille

TM: Do you have plans to commercialise it?

LW: The project is still in its conceptual phase at the moment, but after launching it at the Science Museum in London I felt the need for people to get their hands on the Smell of Data.

While I am not interested in turning it into a commercial product, I would be curious to hear whether there are future partners who want to develop this device. The ultimate dream would be to create the universal smell of data, that can – just like gas – gain governmental recognition. So when it becomes more common to use digital scent dispensers (or when they’re built into our devices by default) it is easier for Internet users to navigate instinctively and stay safe.

TM: Any other plans for the future?

LW: I am looking into developing the concept of digital instinct further, integrating a more natural process in technology; smell will play a prominent role there. 

I’m currently working on a digital tunnel between Malta and The Netherlands, designing a connection through sound and smell. It will become a space where the physical and the digital will merge.

Photo Credit: Simone C. Niquille

Photo Credit: Simone C. Niquille

Smell plays an more important part in our lives than we might realise. It can make us feel secure, comfort us, or in this instance, warn us of invisible dangers. Data security remains a big problem in a world governed by bytes. We certainly see the appeal and need for a device such as the Smell of Data that can educate and prevent damaging events in that domain. If you happen to be in Eindhoven (Netherlands) this week, you can see the Smell of Data for yourself until the 30th of October, as part of Dutch Design Week.

Posted 27th Oct 2016
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