Play Scents Like Music on The Museum of Food and Drink’s New Smell Synthesizer

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An upcoming exhibit at the Museum of Food and Drink in New York City will let visitors play aromatic concertos, composed entirely of scent. The museum’s new smell synthesizer, which opens to the public on October 28, emits different smells—ranging from pleasant odors like “coconut” to overpowering aromas like “nail polish remover”—at the press of a button. 

For instance, Popular Science notes, “Play a triad of isoamyl acetate, isoamyl alcohol, and ethyl acetate, and you get, distinctly, candy banana. Add one more note (cis-3-hexanol, described as 'green leaf'), and the banana unripens, transforming into a bunch of green bananas.”

Alongside the synthesizer, the exhibit includes a list of recommended scent “recipes,” to help visitors construct recognizable aromas from different scent components. But the museum also encourages guests to combine aromas, playing scented “chords” by mixing and matching different flavors. 

According to Popular Science, the synthesizer was developed with help from Joel Mainland, a sensory neuroscientist at Monell Chemical Senses Center. Mainland’s research goal is to identify a small set of chemical compounds that can be recombined to form an unlimited number of aromas—a full map of the “entire human smellscape.” The project is modeled after color printers, which are able to use only three colors of ink to create full-color images. However, while the human eye has only three kinds of photoreceptor cells, the human olfactory system has approximately 400. 

Mainland’s research has led him to developing his own “olfactometers”—devices that emit specific aromas, and can be used to study scent perception. For the MOFAD synthesizer, Mainland built a custom olfactometer, with buttons for twenty aromas, and space for additional inputs, should the museum decide to add more smells.

"We wanted something that gave visitors a sense of limitless possibility," Emma Boast, MOFAD's program director, told Popular Science. "And that also made these ideas about smell and taste, and how your brain might interpret the same chemical in very different ways, less abstract."

[h/t: Popular Science]