Exploring Scent as an Immersive Experience

7:00 AM

What if scent could expand your perception of reality and transport you back in time to relive salient moments?

This was just one aspect of contemplation for Famous Deaths, one of the Tribeca Film Festival’s interactive installations this year.

Famous Deaths was developed in co-creation by lecturers, artists and students as part of the Sense of Smell Project designed for AVANS / CMD Breda University of Applied science, with the support of IFF. At the exhibit, participants entered a mortuary freezer to experience a reconstruction of the final moments of John F. Kennedy’s tragedy or Whitney Houston’s last exhalation by means of sound and scent.

While there Matthias Tabert, Strategic Insights Senior Manager at IFF had an opportunity to talk with lead designers; Frederik Duerinck, Filmmaker Artist, Marcel van Brakel, Artistic Director at Polymorf , and Zeina Abi Assy, Tribeca Film Institute Program Manager.

Left to Right: Zeina Abi Assy, Marcel van Brakel, Frederik Duerinck and Matthias Tabert at the Tribeca Film Festival, Famous Death exhibit in New York.
Here’s what we learned:

MATTHIAS: I’ve seen articles around your work that talk about post-digital storytelling through sense. Can you define post-digital in that context? That’s really new.  

FREDERIK: I think post digital is basically --- an imprint of a dialogue in the heads of people. So, because things are an embodied experience, it goes beyond the screen. It goes beyond only the media. Right now we are in the digital age, but there is an age coming after the digital age.

I think we are missing this – the post-digital age.  

MARCEL: A human body is like a biochemical system. The more and more we interact with technology and it’s like this silicone hardware, the more and more we become aware that it’s not really connecting to the body because the body has different stuff.

At the same time, we see a lot of research where technology is putting into the body --- connected to the body and it’s turning from hardware to wetware. I think this taps into this discussion. It is very interesting to see the body as a chemical system and to interact with it in a chemical way.

I think this has a future.

FREDERIK: One more thing on that is what you can see, as well, is that there is a change that goes back to the body and how we experience the whole environment. I think that is a thing. Storytelling is, in a way, a way of making sense of the world. It’s not only a virtual playground, but we tell stories. We create stories to basically comprehend the world around us. In that manner, if you want to comprehend something, it’s not only about the thought in the head, but it is the whole body.  

MARCEL: It’s an embodied experience.  


MATTHIAS: Marcel, when I look at the installation here, I see a convergence of art and design and technology. To me, that’s really coming through in a very strong way here. Tell us about what it took to turn the idea into an interactive exhibit. What are some of the hurdles? How did that come into realization from idea into exhibit?  

MARCEL: Well, if we wanted to do something with scent we first had to create a scent that we could control. Because we didn’t have any background, we didn’t know anything about scent. We first started with building a scent printer, but that is a divisor which helps us to control the scent. We have 32 different scents that we can control with pressurized air. We use this system to inject the scents into the boxes.

This took a lot of prototypes, after some iteration we came up with the current design. In the beginning we didn't have an interface. So, we knew the story and we knew the concept, but we didn’t have the right interface.

We were driving a car back from Cambridge and we were think-tanking and suddenly we thought: “The honor should be to that person”. So, you should be JFK. Then we came up with the idea to use the cooling chamber. Frederik had them import it from China, which was a big hassle. It is custom built.

We had to enlarge them because it would be too claustrophobic for an American or European audience.  

MATTHIAS: Zeina, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first became aware of “Famous Deaths” and why you brought them to Tribeca Interactive?  

ZEINA: I am the Coordinator of Interactive Programs at TFI. My colleague, Opeyemi Olukemi, first experienced Famous Deaths at IDFA. She is the Senior Director of Interactive Programs at TFI. It’s a mortuary chamber and the experience altogether was very impactful on her that she was just adamant on having us bring Famous Deaths to the Playground.

Really because the Playground is an exhibit where we look at technology and how storytelling is being used across the board where it’s not just linear or traditional, typical media – visual and sounds – it goes beyond that. I think this project goes beyond that in a very, very compelling way.  

MATTHIAS: How do you envision a partnership with a company like IFF, coming from the fragrance industry?

FREDERIK: We’ve been in contact with IFF for quite some time and what we find very interesting in IFF is the level of knowledge and the level of quality and the level of understanding of how smell works. For us, that was always the thing – the candy – that was in front of us and why we always pursued collaboration with IFF because as artists, we want to create the best possible experience. To create the best possible experience, you need the best possible player around to collaborate with. That’s how we got started contacting IFF.  

MATTHIAS: In terms of your book, Sense of Smell, I found it very exciting and full of amazing future concepts. How do you foresee scent evolving from a user experience perspective over the next 10 or so years? How do you see scent evolving as a medium that you are familiar with and as you forecast. Give us a look into the crystal ball.

Scent Is Data

MARCEL: I think that the main thing is that scent is data and it is not currently considered as data. When the industry and the artist make this turn in their head and really see this as data, one can utilize it and do a lot of interesting stuff with it. You can use it for feedback systems. You can use it for communication. You can use it for making softer, more human and natural kind of interfaces --- I get a phone call from my girlfriend, my phone is vibrating. That’s not an interesting interaction.

But if I could smell my girlfriend, it might be more personal, more human and more natural. So, I think that is very interesting.  

MATTHIAS: Pushing these boundaries, what would change about the exhibit in future iterations? How do you see it evolving? How do you see it?

FREDERIK: I think in the future you go to miniaturization. I think you have something which you take with you and it interacts with your body and with how you feel and senses how you feel and gives feedback through smell. It basically influences your behavior and influences how you feel and influences how you interact with people and how people interact with you. We would both wear a device and we would feel in our heart rates or whatever that there is something going on and see how could it smooth out the interaction between us? That is a very interesting side where things could go. That is a big thing.

The other thing that is very important is that the humanization of technology goes back to a level where as human beings – as beings, really – we will basically be approaching each other. The smell will be all the senses. I always feel that there is a bit of a rat race going on. If we want to step out of the rat race, one of the ways to get out of the rat race probably would be to go back much more to the primal senses and interact through those.  

MATTHIAS: I like that post-digital humanization of technology. Wow. Zeina, let me ask you the last question to close. What role do you see for scent in the future? Just coming in as an outsider to some degree, right? This is a new medium for you, as well. How do you see scent playing in the future of the Tribeca Film Festival in light of what they were just saying?  

ZEINA: I notice that at times when people are coming out of these coffins, the first thing they are asked is: “How did it feel?” I thought that that was an interesting question to pose. That experience rather than “How was it?” or “What happened?” So, I think we underestimate the sense of smell a lot until there is an alarming smell that comes up in our experiences.

But, it’s a large part of how our memories are formed and how our experiences are really felt. Smell is a big part of it. I am so excited to see how this is going to be integrated into a lot of technological endeavors and see how smell can actually take them to a whole new level in terms of VR or AR or anything.

If we introduce smell, what are the possibilities then? We are very excited to see where that’s going to go. We’d be very curious to bring in more explorations like that in future Festivals.

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