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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Smell-O-Vision / Smell-O-Visualization

According to our western, industrialized standards, smell and taste are two of the more irrational of senses. Plato, Kant and other great philosophers associated them with pleasures and vice, and encouraged us to shun them. It’s undeniable that inviting, sensual fragrances make us suggestible and vulnerable. If we choose to indulge in these senses, we need good presence of mind to objectively observe the emotional reactions that they generate within us.

Data visualization and information design have focused popular attention upon civic and news data. The context here has been empowerment, but there’s also been an undercurrent of fear.  We want to have perspective; we don’t want to be cowed or manipulated into the wills and whims of central authority or herd mentality. 

There’s been another call to action, again driven by data visualization.  It hasn’t been about civic and news data, nor necessarily about empowerment or fear. It has simply called upon us to make us aware – and even encourage us – to tune in and re-experience our sense of smell and taste.  

On the surface, it’s calling upon us be present, be in the moment. However, for someone who seeks empowerment and who wants to avoid commercial manipulation, there’s lots of value here too. 

First, a bit about tradition, history, and modern trends. Then, two visualizations that deal with our sense of smell and taste. 


Scents and fragrances are integral to ancient tradition and ritual. The endless citations in the Social Issues Research Centre's Smell Report of pre-industrial cultures suspended in the modern age refer to the importance and perseverance of smell in their social status, customs and interaction. 

These customs are, relative to the remainder of western society, relics. Starting with the Puritan surge of morality and witch-hunts that spread throughout Europe and North America, frivolous and potentially subversive diversions were crushed down by secular, theocratic reactions to religious corruption.  Society carefully stowed away the baser, animal features of our human interactions. During the industrial revolution, out of necessity and comfort, society further repressed these senses in reaction to the terrible smells of chimneys, sewage, and general miasma from crowded city conditions.

Literary fiction often reflects our interests and values. In the early 20th century, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past went to great lengths to illustrate our subjectivity of experience, and how our senses of smell, taste and touch could alter the inner narrative.  But as modern, consumer culture arrived in the 1950’s, with mass media such as radio, television, and internet, we spent huge amounts of time watching and listening, and far less time on our other three senses. Author Vendela Veda, writing for Slate Magazine in 2004, coined the phrase ‘deodorization of American fiction’


We've had some clumsy, and later, commercial attempts to revive our senses. One of the more notable – yet widely panned – attempts in the modern era to influence our senses was the Smell-O-Vision and other competing/contemporary devices such as the Smell-O-Rama and Scentovision.  The general concept was to pump odors into each individual seat in a theater in order to make the overall cinematic experience more realistic. 

These technologies have evolved from entertainment into commercial uses.  Companies like ScentAir help retails with ‘scent marketing’ in order to induce desired consumer retail behavior. ScentAir offers its clients an opportunity to develop their ‘signature smell’ in order to convey a long lasting association with a particular brand.  If that’s not on the agenda, ScentAir still offers its clients a whole array of scents – and scent delivery technologies - that can be employed to generate an ‘experience’…including ‘refreshing’, ‘euphoric’, and ‘invigorating’. 

This raises the question: are these pleasant frivolities?  Or are we in fact being manipulated? Are we paying attention? And if so, to what extent can we, through heightened awareness, be empowered?

Kate McClean’s Sensory Maps provides urban maps of smells - geospatial visualizations of smells that come from bakeries, storefronts, low tides in the bay, or flowering trees. It’s a kind of smell-finding, versus way-finding. 

She provides a wonderful summary of the meaning and purpose of her work:

“In an occular-centric world we should seek alternative platforms for meaningful communication, including multi-sensory, non-visual and the stimulation of personal memory through the creation of ambiance.”

Kate designs her sensory maps primarily for the urban tourist, providing them with another opportunity for exploration and enhancement of the experience of exploring. And it’s her hope that by bringing these smells to the forefront of the tourist’s consciousness will serve to create an even more memorable experience, triggering the documented connection between smell and memories. 

Kate and her colleagues stroll through the streets and record their encountered scents. They then overlay this information about these scents onto more familiar street maps. The scents are depicted along axes of location, intensity, drift, and range.  Range and direction can depend on many things, including wind, temperature, and season.

It’s challenging work, for these maps deal with highly subjective information. Some might find certain smells ordinary, perhaps even pleasant, relative to their own habitual domains, and rank them lower on the intensity scale. Others might find the same smells unusual, and perhaps extremely unpleasant or powerful. And along the lines of subjectivity, there’s a less evident, but even more challenging job she’s taken on: developing an odor classification scheme. Collecting data and developing a classification scheme often require the efforts of many participants – thereby providing more validity to the data that emerges, and allowing the collectors and organizers of the data to triangulate across different subjective experiences. 

The visualization illustrates some quite counter-intuitive (at least to the unfamiliar) associations. For example, would we have made the association between beer and beef? Probably not in the usual savory-versus-sweet continuum that most of the usual visualizations of flavor provide us. But much like a color wheel, this visualization gives us clues into perhaps more natural pairings that wouldn’t have been immediately apparent to us or discernible based on our usual conscious thinking or consideration.  

Here’s the original visualization from the academic paper:

It’s fine work. However, when we compare the original rendering of the network in the paper by the authors to the rendering by Tulp in interactive form, we see the importance of showing a network without relying too heavily on visually showing the ‘edges’, or the linkages between nodes. If we have a static presentation of the information, as the original paper has, it’s important to find alternative ways to depict the relationships between the element. 

While neither visualizations are explicit calls for change-making, both provide very clear messages: we are mostly sleepwalking through our daily hours, unaware of the sensory subtleties that steer and affect our conscious thinking. 

Is it possible that we may turn to smell as a source of power, or at least autonomy, or that we may push the Wylie Dufresne-style molecular gastronomy into our everyday meals? 

It’s more probable (and ironic) that, like other movements such as Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity, this kind of reclamation will be the privilege of the most highest economic classes of western culture – shadowed by the ongoing traditions of the so-called developing world.

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