Sensory Intelligence Research - Prototyping the Future of Scent Experiences

Industry: Sensory Futures, Scent, Wearable Tech
Expertise: Sensory Intelligence, Interaction Design, Wearable Tech Innovation
Challenge: What is the future of digitized smell? How can we begin to research and prototype for future sensory intelligence and digitized sensory experiences?

Outcome: Innovating for the intersection of HCI and scent through physical computing prototype (arduino microcontroller, servo motors), 3D Mcor Prototoypes, use case films, expert interviews, design research, performative prototyping, scent research, speculative BCI. 
Award: “Best Overall”, Microsoft Design Expo 2015

Our sensory research proposes new experiences harnessing speculative e-nose and brain computer interface (BCI) technology. Through olfactory research and physical computing we prototyped and developed proof-of-concepts centered on remote sharing, controlling and adjusting of smells.


This body of research challenges underlying assumptions behind current wearable devices and proposes a technology that does not conform to a “problem solving” model. The design speculations tap into alternate forms of human interaction that go beyond quantitative task analysis to become part of an emotional spectrum of life. This approach to wearable technology allows us to design novel systems that take the intuitive and emotive aspects of brain computing into consideration.

Performative states:“I’m in control.”, “I have not control, I react.”, “I perform varying the control.”

Performative states:“I’m in control.”, “I have not control, I react.”, “I perform varying the control.”


Radical Sensing is a body of work at the intersection of wearable technology, brain computer interfaces (BCI) and the sense of smell. Radical Sensing explores the potential of designing for an augmentation of smell in the form of a radical nose prosthetic.

We conducted expert interviews, user research, engaged in a proprietary research methodology (which we coined called performative prototyping), created 3D models, developed use cases and engaged in physical computing.

This research raises questions about what it means to experience an enhanced sense of smell through a neuroprosthetic. Can the removal of a body part become aspirational? How does the ability to share scent impact "smell literacy"? What does "sensorial consensus" mean? How do we design for an ability to control or relinquish control of smell?

Research - Expert Interviews

Early in our research, we visited the chemistry labs at Occidental College and California Institute of Technology (CALTECH) to interview lab technicians and view GC-MS (gas chromatography-mass spectrometry) equipment in usage. Additionally, we interviewed experts in computational neurology (Professor John Allman), anaplastology (Stefan Knauss of  “Aesthetic Prosthetics”) and brain computer interface hardware development (OpenBCI).

Research - Performative Prototyping

How do you design for a technology/ability that does not exist? This challenge led us to the idea of working with performers (specifically those with specialized movement or dance training). We started calling this process "performative prototyping". Performative prototyping involves leading performers through improvised movement followed by a debriefing of the performers. This qualitative research methodology allows designers to innovate for immersive and spatial experiences. Instead of narrowing, it is a divergent and generative process.


We created a family of prototypes iteratively. Our first prototypes were analog. We rapidly prototyped 3D printed nose-plugs with breathing holes attached to long straws. Then we began making variations on the nose plugs based on the findings, including two-person nose plugs and uni-nostril nose plugs. We also tested functioning prototypes including a nose mesh (a canvas for placing interactive microelectronics and sensors), and an open-closing nose prototype that reacted to the breath (using a servo + arduino microcontroller).

To explore form, we 3D paper-printed (Mcor) post-nose forms3. These 3D models allowed us to playfully speculate on context-dependent usage of a nose prosthetic. The five 3D printed nose forms include a muted "sleep nose" made smaller to allow for more comfortable sleeping on the side or stomach. Additionally, we explored forms that do not conform to human nose shapes, that such forms could challenge what we conceive of as beautiful architecture of the nose.

Research: Smell Literacy

To begin phase II of Radical Sensing, we collaborated with an independent perfumer (Jackie Steel) to create a suite of scents for testing purposes. We conducted three scent tests (sunscreen, moss, horse stables) with a group of diverse performers. We were interested in the relationship of language to smell.

We asked the subjects to verbalize their reactions and to identity not only whether they were able to identify the scents, but also the range of memories and associations the smells triggered. The subjects unanimously expressed wanting to compare their understanding and experience of the scents. These tests led us to ask: would an augmented nose prosthetic facilitate richer discourse of smell? Would this lead to smell literacy?

Research: "Control"

To begin testing augmented function, we moved onto stereo smell. Our initial question was - what does it mean to adjust the intensity and focus of smell? We placed “coconut” on a subject’s right and “sunscreen” on her left. We were surprised to see she was able to differentiate the two smells and also talk about the experience of smelling both together. The subject also was confident of the smells directionality, but flipped the directionality of where the scents were coming from.

We extended the straws and led the performer through improvisation. We placed the “receiver” of smell in a full body suit with aim of rendering her passive and cutting her off from her other senses. This set up a leader follower dynamic. Through this process we began thinking of control. Our question became - what does it mean to relinquish control of your nose, willingly or unwillingly?

Research: Control and ConsensusSensorial Consensus


We took this idea of sharing and intimacy to the extreme by giving the performers a restrictive and uncomfortable prototype. We repeated this test with performers who knew each other well. They found it less challenging and moved more quickly. This led us to consider familiarity affecting ability. During our debrief this second pair of dancers spoke of synchronizing the breath. This led us to question what would it meant to design a neuroprosthetic of the nose that uses another’s breath as a cue.

Image credits: Selwa Sweidan, Jay Hong
Collaborators: Jay Hong
Dancers/Research subjects: Morgan Fogarty, Samantha Goodman, Darby Kelley, Lindsey Lollie, Darrian O’Reilly, Crystal Sepulveda and Alex Shilling.
Scent Materials (used in studies): Jackie Steele
Advisors: Phil Van Allen, ArtCenter College of Design