Book Smell for the 21st Century

Ask an antiquarian book collector what a room full of books smells like, and responses will probably include the familiar scents of glue, ink, various types of paper, even mold. “Old Book Smell” even attracted the attention of The Smithsonian Magazine, which ran a story on its blog in 2013 exploring the chemical breakdown of a book’s odeur. (Scientists behind the study deduced that old books emit a “combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.” 

E-books can’t compete with that unmistakable aromatic, but technology has advanced to the point where new digital books can be infused with scent. Think of the Smell-O-Vision, (a 1960 invention intended to perfume movie theaters) but on a mobile device.  Last year, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup Vapor Communications announced the creation of the oPhone, an app capable of emitting scent that corresponds to digitally written material. Here’s how it works: type an oNote using email or SMS. When the message shows up in the oNotes app, a scent wafts from a Bluetooth-enabled oPhone, which looks like two miniature steel chimneys affixed atop a white and stainless-steel platter. Now that same technology, generally called oMedia, exists for a range of products - oSongs, oClothing, and oBooks made with ‘scent-tagged’ images. 

Right now, there’s only one oBook, a collaborative effort with Melcher Media called Goldilocks and the Three Bears: The Smelly Version. Infused with fruit scents, Goldilocks is designed to encourage children to select healthy snacks like apricots and oranges. 

Goldilocks 3.jpg
image courtesy of Vapor Communications 

None of the various oMedia products are available in stores yet, and attempts to download the oNotes app from the company website were unsuccessful. However, on Saturday, April 18, curious parties can test the Goldilocks oBook at Museum of the Moving Image in New York, where it’s part of an installation called Sensory Stories: An Exhibition of New Narrative Experiences.  Another olfactory exhibit, Memory | Witness of the Unimaginable, opens today at Le Laboratoire in Cambridge, MA. Created by music composer Dániel Péter Biró, master perfumer Christophe Laudamiel, and oMedia creators David Edwards and Rachel Field, installations examine how the combination of scent and sound can transform a sensory experience.

At this rate, oMedia is eerily close to fulfilling Anne of Green Gable’s author L.M. Montgomery’s desire: “I wish we could see perfumes as well as smell them. I’m sure they would be very beautiful.” 

Sensory Stories: An Exhibition of New Narrative Experiences runs from April 18 through July 26 at the Museum of the Moving Image 36-01 35 Ave, Astoria, NY 11106 718 777 6888. More information is at: http://www.movingimage.us/ 

Memory | Witness of the Unimaginable is at Le Laboratoire Cambridge from April 18 through August 26. 650 East Kendall St. Cambridge, MA 02142 info@lelaboratoirecambridge.com Tel: 617-945-7515 http://www.lelaboratoirecambridge.com/#!exhibitions/c5jx


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