work resume

The convergence of camera and mobile phones has proved to be highly popular. Over 89% of cellphones sold, include the camera function, and with advancements in memory storage technology and improving camera quality, it has become typical for users to click just about anything and everything they see and do.

A recent psychology study has found that snapping pictures of an event, results in a decreased ability to vividly remember it. In addition, the increasing collection of mobile photographs has made it challenging to search, filter and categorize photos, let alone the notion of memory reconstruction from photos. For our project, we wanted to explore ways of making technology the background of social interactions, we wanted to design interactions that focused on reflection and mental rest, interactions that were not for productivity or efficiency.Our approach was to design interactions that serves as a vehicle for social conversations, one that invites reflection and engages multiple senses.

Participant Observation

We visited several businesses including perfumeries, cafes and places that promote multi-sensory experiences, particularly the sense of smell. When we visited LUSH Cosmetics, the first thing that caught our attention was a sign on the door that read “Cast a spell on your senses”. Most of the products in the store was very colorful, and there was a complexity of smells. In some ways this was very similar to our design problem of organizing photos. What made this situation more similar to our idea was the description for each of the products at the store, they all emphasized the olfactory experience from the product. The shoppers engaged with the products, by picking them up and smelling their fragrances. On shopper even commented that she was buying the soaps that smelled good because she had kids and she wanted them to bathe. Another family visited the store, and it was interesting to note that they let their baby on a stroller, smell some of the products. This was an example of shared olfactory experiences.

A Tea Haus, a tea store, we observed two friends having a conversation about the aroma of their tea. One of them commented that the tea did not smell autumn at all, while the other disagreed. This suggested that people may have different perception of smells, their association of a smell to an object is very personal. The store housed an enormous variety of tea, and the store manager suggested that customers shop for tea by smelling it.

Smell Test

We wanted to get a better understanding about memory association with fragrances. So, we decided to conduct a pilot study to understand how people recollected memories based on smell. We recruited 30 participants for our test, all of whom were students with geographical diversities. We chose ten different fragrances that represented both object and events, they are: Pink Sand, Soft Blanket, Salted Caramel, Margarita, Spiced Pumpkin, Pumpkin Cupcake, Eucalyptus Spearmint, Morning Stroll, Pumpkin Spice Latte and Pecan waffles. While most of these fragrances are unique to the United States, we wanted to understand how unfamiliar smells help in memory creation and recollection amongst our test participants. Based on the results we found that some participants really associated smell with different memory episodes, but some were only able to identify the smell. Using the responses from our participants, we could infer that smell almost triggers a train of thoughts the leads to a memory, and those who had strong association to a smell wrote down more content that others who interacted with the smell at a superficial level. During the debriefing session after the test, one participant revealed that she collected a fragrance from each of the place she visited, that she had a perfume for New York and one for Florida.

Design + Prototype

The recommended approach for interaction design was followed to create this installation. Based on the observations and interviews, we constructed an affinity wall to sort, organize and interpret findings from our research.Through the process of affinity wall, we attempted to link memories and experiences with vision and olfaction. Some of the observations suggested smell as an emotional interface, while the observations at the tea house connected smell to food.

Through our intense brainstorming session, we attempted to generate ideas that connected photos, scents and memories together.

We created low fidelity prototypes of our ideas to test with our target users. For the display device, we built several variations of photo albums and also coffee table center pieces. We also spent considerable time and effort in creating a DIY projector using the mobile phone display and a Fresnel lens. This was later replaced with a coffee table projection system because of its limitations in lighting condition and minimum distance requirements.

Our system is comprised of three units, the mobile phone app, the coffee table display, and “molecules” our intelligent scent atomizer. At its core, this system categorizes photos based on scents, and provides a novel way to retrieve and view those photos.

Coffee Table Display

The coffee table display is made up of a wooden frame with an acrylic top surface. It houses a computer connected to a projector, mirror for reflecting light onto the acrylic surface, and sensor equipment to detect when the scent atomizer is pressed. We hacked the coffee table to create an ambient display for photos, while preserving its primary function. Such a display affords engagement, and social interaction and unlike a projected display or a photo album which demands complete attention, the coffee table functions as a conversation enabler, especially to reflect on past events or take a trip down the memory lane. The sensor system consists of an Arduino connected to a radio frequency receiver. The sensor continuously monitors for incoming signal and transmits it to the computer. The computer, which is connected to the projector, runs processing code to display an image collage for the selected scent.

Smart Scent Atomizer

This is the key interaction element that wakes up the coffee table display. The scent atomizer is named “Molecule” because it represents one scent, one category in a collection of olfactory experiences. The atomizer contains a fragrance of choice, and is connected to an Arduino and the transmitter which sends out RF signals when pressed, encoding the name of the scent contained in the atomizer. User interacts with the atomizer by simply spraying the scent around, and this causes the transmitter to establish communication with the coffee table, and send the name of the scent being dispensed. The coffee table then runs the processing sketch to display a collage of photos that is tagged with that scent.

Mobile App

The mobile app brings the two systems together. It is the primary source of information input, and allows users to tag and categories their photos. The interface design is fairly simple, in which the users first defines the scents that they wish to tag their photographs with. When they take a picture, they have the option of tagging that image with a scent, or they can at a later point in time, categories their image gallery by scent tagging.


The brain is a marvelous thing; over time it studies and catalogues odors, and knows when and how to respond to a smell. We don’t constantly sense our clothes against our body, the sensation goes away within a few minutes after we get dressed, and similarly, our brain does not constantly alert us of what we smell, it know what smells call for action, and which smells are harmless. Based on feedback from observers, Molecules may not be an interface for everyone. Our research suggested that some people have a stronger sensitivity to olfaction, they even collect and curate different olfactory experiences. Perhaps molecules is for those individuals who connect with the sense of smell. While most observers were charmed by the surface display, and the wireless communication between the atomizer and the display, they failed to experience the connection between smell and visuals. Perhaps, this is because our sense of smell and memories are very personal to each of us, and this generic form of the interface did not evoke memories. Molecules is only a glimpse into the possibilities afforded by the sense of smell, and in the field of HCI, there are several novel and interesting ways to connect people with their sense of smell.

hari [at] haridecoded [dot] com