Olfactory Grammar

A Dystopian Future about the Influence of Advanced Technolgy on Human Brain

Project Objectives

1. Raise awareness of cyber crime, privacy and rising dependence on technology

2. Use design to provoke ideas, thoughts and public discussions.


Olfactory Grammar reinterprets user interactions based on scent, by considering smell as a powerful pathway and new interface for communication. It’s positioned as resistance to pervasive surveillance, data leakage, and memory degradation.
Interaction Design
Art Direction
Graphic Design

Critical Fiction
Rapid Prototyping

Jessie Mar

Yasuko Sakuragi
Recognition Art Center College of Design Graduation Show

In the context of pervasive surveillance, memory degradation, and data leakage. I proposed developing an encrypted message system with smell.

The project was derived from the interests towards cognitive science, synesthesia, and the way how smell triggers memories and emotions. As olfaction connects to the limbic system of the brain, the unconscious impact of how smell influences us is really powerful.

With my passion in visual design, I’m not only interested in visual information processing, more than that, I’d like to investigate how other senses assist or trigger our visual perception. It could be used for designing for visual-impaired people. Starting the project from exploring topics in different research areas, to writing a science fiction that explores technophobia, I proposed possible ways that we could fully utilize the sense of smell in a future world, with new behavioral patterns and social dynamics.

Why Develop Encrypted Smell Message System?

When everything is monitored, how about we develop a new communication method which is Invisible?

Besides the invisibility, our olfaction is closely linked to parts of the brain that process memory. We can easily recall a piece of memory within one second when we get a whiff of something. In fact, Increasing amount of research has revealed the possibility of using olfactory stimulation for Alzheimer's and Dementia, even for amplifying learning and memory capabilities. By using these strong associations between smell and memory, we could possibly encode and decode our messages with smell. 

By exploiting strong associations between smell and memory, the Olfactory Grammar wearables are encoded with encrypted messages based on sequence and olfactory training.

Body Mapping

Other than the scent message itself, different ways of using the Olfactory Grammar wearable can indivate various meanings, such as superiority, level of trust, relationships, and how much information allwed to be revealed or passed on to others.

Thesis Background

How would advanced technology influence society and individuals in the future? How can we solve the problems of privacy protection and data security in an innovative way?

Using speculative design as the approach to my thesis is because I wanted to use speculation for critical and provocative purposes, by "open[ing] up all sorts of possibilities that can be discussed, debated, and used to collectively define a preferable future (Speculative Everything, Dunne & Raby)."

Other than the reflection about technology, Olfactory Grammar is derived from my interests in various topics: How could we expand human capabilities? How do our senses correspond to another sensory experience? How are emotions and memories triggered by the sensory stimuli? By which ways our behavior is changed unconsciously? How possibly would social behavior be altered by the innovations?

Later on, after I explored and studied the topics above, I found out that the sense of smell could possibly serve as a solution to the problems occurred in a dystopian world, such as extreme surveillance, data leakage, and memory degradation.

Experiment 01. Sensory stimuli

How a sense could be produced or triggered by stimulation of another sense? In this experiment, I invited 5 participants to smell a scent with their eyes covered, and then draw or write down the correlated visuals popped up in their mind. They can use colors, shapes, textures, or just simple words to describe the feelings or objects. Most of them tend to link the smell to physical objects. The interesting finding in this experiment is that the subjects used the same color, brown, as a correspondence with a particular scent, Chinese hot pot powder, consisting of Chinese medicine and so on, even if they thought of the smell as different objects, such as a feeling of sickness, beans, and coffee.

The excerpt above shows the way I designed olfactory symbols and trainings without the necessity of identifying odors. However, it also shows that it has the possibility by utilizing colors to assist olfactory communication.

"Color would be integrated as an external component in the formation of the mental visual image, so that the identification of odor would result from the identification of this mental visual image. This interpreta- tion allows to explain both the influence of color on the verbalization of olfactory information as well as the reduction in performance observed in the odor recognition when a subject has access to color ... The hypothesis that the identification of an odor results from a visual identification of the mental representation of the object having this odor could be the reason why humans never developed specific olfactory terms to describe odors. Indeed, if odor identification results from a visual process, it is logical that the odor is identified using visual identifiers ... Our results tend to confirm that sense of smell is, by itself, unlikely to provide sufficient information to allow for a consciously reasoned decision. The capacity to identify odors could only be an accessory aspect of the olfactory function. The true function of smell is probably sought elsewhere. " - Morrot, Gil, Fre ́de ́ric Brochet, and Denis Dubourdieu. "The Color of Odors." Brain and Language 79.2 (2001)

Experiment 02. Olfactory tools

In this experiment, different approaches were tested by the subject to experience odors, such as a sequence of scents, mixed smell, etc.

Experiment 03. Smell melody

Developed from the previous experiment - smell as a sequence, my question was: how do people translate scents if they perceive them as words in a sentence? What would be the grammar of smell? How possible will the olfactory music be formed in the future? How do people perceive a sequence of odors - in a high or low speed, smell them from a distance, sniff them individually...?

Experiment 04. Social dynamics

In the future, when humans greet each other with a sniff, which we gather information, and emotional
data from. The intriguing finding from this experiment is about social behavior and power dynamics, based on the geography of smell and social interactions.

For instance, from the interviews of the participants, they revealed the concerns of how do people determine who smells the other one first, and how could they control the breathing patterns in order not to breathe on each other's skin and prevent intimacy? It's the reason that I started developing the olfactory wearables as a tool for the social interactions.
Special Thanks
* In Alphabetical Order

Amanda Jensen [ Model ]
Anjuli Sethi [ Model ]
Christine Meinders [ Experiment Participant ]
Hyejin Lim [ Model ]
Jessie Mar [ Photographer ]
Jade Milan [ Experiment Participant ]
Josh Bookman [ Summery Text Correction ]
Kiana Bahramian [ Experiment Participant ]
Olivia Yang [ Experiment Participant ]
Schei Wang [ Experiment Participant ]
AdvisorsElise Co [ Lead Advisor ]
Claire L. Evans [ Adjunct Advisor ]
Mike Milley [ Adjunct Advisor ]

Department & School
Media Design Practices | Lab
Art Center College of Design | Pasadena, CA

Dana El Masri | Perfumer/Founder at Jazmin Saraϊ

2017 © Qiao Huang