This week, a new fund-raising campaign launched on IndieGoGo to raise money to produce the oPhone DUO, a hardware accessory and app for the iPhone that lets you send someone a scent. The idea is that Person #1 takes a picture and then tags the picture with what he smells — much like when you sample a wine and then say that you smell hints of blackberry, chocolate, and oak. Then Person #1 sends that tagged picture to Person #2, who can see the picture on his iPhone and can — thanks to the connected oPhone DUO hardware — also smell the scent that was described by Person #1 because the oPhone hardware device can create over 300,000 different aromas. The product is being developed by David Edwards, a Professor of Engineering at Harvard, and some of his former students. This video does a nice job of explaining how it works:
When I initially saw this video for the oPhone, my first thought was that this is such a quirky idea that it would be perfect for the offbeat video that I typically post at the end of my Friday In the news posts. But upon further reflection, I've begun to think more seriously about what the oPhone might tell us about the future.
None of us are old enough to remember a time before the telephone was invented, but for those who encountered a telephone for the very first time, I imagine that it must have seemed incredible to hear the voice of a loved one from across the country. I am old enough to remember a time before cellphones, and I remember that when my father first brought home one of those large, clunky devices that debuted in the 1980s, it seemed amazing to me to be able to talk to someone wherever they were, even if they were far away from a house or a payphone. (For younger iPhone J.D. readers, here is a link to the Wikipedia entry for payphone so that you can read up on this device that you may have never used.) It wasn't that long ago that the idea of taking a high-quality picture on a mobile device and then instantly sending it to someone else around the world seemed futuristic. And today, with my iPhone, I can easily have FaceTime videochats with people around the world, even if both of us are in the middle of parks. We now live in a world where sights and sounds can be instantly shared from anyone to anyone.
Which brings me back to the oPhone. I'm not sure that the oPhone itself will ever be commercially popular; the device would be far more interesting if it could automatically sense a smell and then recreate that exact scent for someone else without relying on people to choose the right words to describe an aroma. Nevertheless, it makes me wonder about what may be coming in the future. Will our children be using mobile devices that can instantly transmit not only sights and sounds, but also smells? Tastes? Or even the sense of touch, so that you could send someone a handshake or a hug or a kiss? It all seems pretty unbelievable right now, but if Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson were around today to see what I can do with my iPhone 5s, I suspect that they would be astonished.