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Phones Ring, But Soon They May Smell To Alert You

Our mobile devices already ring and vibrate to get our attention, but a prototype device created at Le Laboratoire in Paris, the oPhone, suggests that soon they might also emit odors.

Le Laboratoire is run by Harvard professor David Edwards, who splits his time between Boston and Paris; it's a retail, R&D, and exhibition space a few blocks from the Louvre, and a domestic version called Le Lab Cambridge is set to open in Kendall Square next year.

I stopped by last month to have a look at both the oPhone (the "o" stands for olfactory), and the space itself.

The current oPhone, part of an exhibit at Le Laboratoire called "Virtual Coffee," is a separate handheld device that is linked to a smartphone via Bluetooth. (Obviously, the long-term vision is to have it integrated into phones, or perhaps designed to be a protective case for the phone.)

When triggered by an incoming e-mail, it can emit one of four aromas: espresso, hazelnut, latte, and mocha. "There's a small cartridge inside that has the ability to deliver these micro-odors when it is heated," Edwards says.

As a demo, he sends a whiff of espresso to a student, on the far side of his office. (In the picture is Edwards with Rachel Field, a Harvard student who helped create the oPhone. The demo was still a bit flukey.) "We're working now on a way to mix the oPhone's aromas," Edwards says. He talks about the possibility of discovering odiferous building blocks ''the equivalent of DNA's nucleotides ''that could be blended to create just about any smell.

In terms of the oPhone's future potential, there are obvious applications like using smell to persuade you to book a spa treatment, or stop by a bakery to grab a fresh baguette. But Edwards has other ideas, too: "You might go to see a movie, and you'd get a cartridge that's synchronized with the movie, and integrates with the drama.

It could be relevant in gaming ''a scent track you could design for a game or any audio or video program." Edwards is also interested in what you might call therapeutic smells: a unique aroma that helps you fall asleep at night, or makes you less hungry.

A new oPhone prototype will debut in London this October, Edwards says, at a conference put on by Wired Magazine. "People will design a Virtual Coffee Mocha as a 'symphony' [by] mixing different coffees, chocolates, caramels, and nuts in four movements of 30 seconds total," he writes via e-mail. It will be capable of delivering over 100 different aromas, Edwards says. And next June, when Le Lab Cambridge opens, he says that he expects to have an oPhone focused on "culinary applications."

Much of Edwards' career has been focused on new ways to deliver food, beverages, and pharmaceuticals. (He was a co-founder of a company now known as Civitas Therapeutics, which is developing an inhalable prescription drug for Parkinson's disease.) It sounds like Le Lab Cambridge will showcase those interests, blending in art and performance, as the Paris version does.

In Cambridge's academic and entrepreneurial community, Edwards says, "We are not good at showing what we do. So Le Lab Cambridge will ask the question, how do we share it?" That's a laudable mission.

Below is a video demo of May showing the oPhone in action, followed by a few photos from Le Laboratoire Paris:
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