Can You Smell How Time Flies?

Muthesius Academy of Fine Arts and Design 2014 – 15 Week Project


Exploring scent as an information medium –
How could we harness the power of the sense of smell in design? How can olfaction influence and enrich our interactions with information? To which extend can scents alter the way we think? This project is a research-through-design project that explores people‘s reactions on scents and possible design implications. An olfactory ambient display is designed for the working place supporting your work flow: Scents remind you of taking a break in an unobtrusive yet effective way.



Diderot called the sense of smell the most sensual of our senses. It is our most primitive, our first sense. It heightens our reality, informs our desires, triggers memory and constructs our environment. We are smelling every second of our life - about 20 000 times a day - and we cannot resist. Contained in the limbic system, the area of the brain which is responsible for our emotions and the most ancient core of the brain, the sense of smell is our most powerful sense. We smell, feel, associate, take decisions through smell even before rationally thinking and evaluating it. Smelling helps us to find the right partner, warns of trouble, short: it makes us distinguish good from bad. 


How to make smell visual – scent charts





Scents are able to wake already forgotten memories, bring us to back places  and times that mean something to us. So I was curious to know, what smells are associated with which places and emotions, which ones trigger which stories? And: Are there certain scents that always evoke the same images and moods?

I created different test settings in which the blindfolded test persons unfold their memories and thoughts triggered by 12 different smells. The result are smell charts – a visualisation of something that is usually unknown to the eye. A survey asked: How does fury (and many more emotions, places, values, etc.) smell? People described smells that they associated with the keywords. These explorations showed me:



12 odor samples such as wood, cucumber, mint, leather, cigarettes, ...


Smell confessions full grain bread


Test sheets


Smell confessions wood+mushroom



No sense is more fuzzy and distinct at the same time than the sense of smell / Scents can reveal stories that you might have forgotten already – and might have never wanted to tell anybody / Smell is emotional and powerful / Let's embrace it!






The idea relies on the Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo. Its goal is to enhance focus and concentration by cutting down on interruptions. While working we often find ourselves losing track of time: We are so heavily focussed on our work or the tasks that have to finished for a certain deadline that we forget to eat and drink, to move or just to unwind. An ambient desktop timer using scents could notify us in an unobtrusive manner to simply take a break.




The olfactory timer emits two different scents to divide the time into working time and break. The working time is supported by the fresh smell of cucumber and orange. To notify it's time for a break, the smell switches to the scent of freshly ground coffee. Just as you would do with a standard alarm, you can snooze too – by blowing back at the scent box.




Scent timeline based on the Pomodoro Technique and later on used for prototyping





To define the functionality of the scent timer, I was curious to know: How do we perceive scents? When, for how long and how strong do we smell while we are focused on our work? I therefore set up a work booth, let fellow students work in there, and tested different scent intensities through a window. 



Scents blown into a work booth at different times and time spans


Bigger scent source


Scent emission graphs that were tested




But would an olfactory timer really work? This needed to be tested and was most challenging but exciting part of the process. Several iterations on coding in both vvvv and Arduino, construction, and  physical form of the odors were done to achieve a prototype that was able to emit two different scents.



Prototype using servo-controlled doors to open entire scent box

Prototype with PC fans opening scent containers 


Final prototype used for testing with membranes


The final prototype was given to test people who took it to their homes. I asked them to place the scent timer on their desktops and turn it on while working. In addition, they were asked to record themselves. The test persons didn't what would happen, but they showed reactions when the smell of coffee replaced the cucumber-orange. They paused their work, started snacking or leaving the desk.

Watch the user tests below:



Recordings of the user tests at people's homes





This project was one of my most explorative and unforeseeable projects. It was great to see how everyone involved in my project reacted to the scents, whether they wanted to or not. The pure curiosity of what was able to using smell in design was what kept me going. On the other hand, scents are not the most solid materials. It was barely possible to control the scents and their intensities, they were too strong, too weak, fleeting, unpleasant, ... On hindsight, the scent timer might seem a little manipulating and the question arises, if this is what we want?!



Download the full documentation here.