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Smell is one of the six senses that the human beings are blessed with. It is one of the senses that we make use of almost all day, 24×7, sometimes even while sleeping. But, can smell help us express our emotions better?

Recently, a Chinese study which involved 54 people aimed to study whether humans can express their emotions with scent during digital communication. The researchers have named the concept “odor emoticon.”

Published in The International Journal of Human-Computer Studies in April this year, the study basically took place in three main phases. It involved selecting separate groups of participants, reviewing them, and then corresponding them with one another by making use of scents.

The researchers, Wei Xiang, Shi Chen, Lingyun Sun, Shiwei Cheng, and V. Michael Bove Jr., discovered that chatting which was enhanced by smell proved to be more intuitive, lead to more communication, and provided the participants a helping hand in perceiving and conveying their emotions during conversations.

Psychologists strongly believe that there exists a strong physiological connection between olfaction and the system that is responsible for emotional experiences in humans.

Odors are uniquely emotionally evocative. This is mainly because humans have a tendency to associate them to places, people and internal states. They have acquired a strong role in helping people communicate beyond what they see and hear.

Unfortunately, even despite of having its own power of induction, odor still hasn’t been used or incorporated in modern day mainstream technology. According to experts, the main reason behind this is the fact that the world currently houses over hundreds of thousands of complex odors and its very difficult to replicate all of them.

But, V. Michael Bove Jr., an MIT professor and one of the authors on the study, strongly feels that the main reason behind why odors still haven’t found a place in modern technology is simply because they haven’t been researched that much in human-computer interaction that they should have been up till now.

A National Geographic survey conducted in the year 1986 is considered as the biggest olfaction study till date. During the survey, approximately 1.5 million subscribers of the magazine “scratched and sniffed” a page of six samples sent to them in the magazine. The results of the survey revealed how strongly age and gender influence a person’s sense of smell.

It is interesting to note that while smell dating services and pheromone parties have found a way to utilise these studies which have found a connection between odor and sexual attraction, olfaction hasn’t yet found its true space in digital communication-where other senses like sound, sight, and touch are being prominently used.

But, according to Bove, this is slowly starting to change. In the Media Lab that they’re currently working, there are at least three olfaction-related projects in action.

In the first phase of their research, the researchers from MIT and Zhejiang University surveyed 98 people about which odors they thought best depicted certain emotions. After this, a 50-person research group smelled the chosen odors and started aligning them with what they felt were the most accurate corresponding emotions.

According to Zhejiang University professor, Wei Xiang, who is one of the authors on the study, the most surprising finding of the study was that they got several odor emoticons. While the previous studies done in the domain had managed to strike a connection between the simple feelings/emotions like disgust and pleasantness with certain specific smells, this particular study ended up finding that “odor emoticons” might actually function in ways similar to the visual emojis that humans currently use.

Towards the end of the study, the researchers came up with 9 odor emoticons, which included “vinegar” for “envy,” “apple” for “happiness,”and “rose” for “love.”

During the final stage of the study, 54 new participants tried out the odor emoticons. The participants were first made to listen to pre-recorded voicemails while a prototype “Olfaction machine” secreted the pre-selected scents from the Demeter Fragrance Library by making use of an air humidifier.

mage: Zhejiang University/MIT

Image: Zhejiang University/MIT

The next step involved the participants communicating on pre-selected topics like the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake and 2014 World Cup via text. While chatting, the participants had an option of clicking a button with a listed emotion which would then trigger the prototype Olfaction machine to emit the odor associated with the emotion. For example, during a conversation about the tragic 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, a participant recalled an incident where a teacher had abandoned his students during the natural disaster, and chose to emit “anger” (ammonia) during the conversation.

Towards the end, the least chosen emoticon was “envy” and most frequently chosen was “happiness.”

After the experiment, majority of the participants expressed that they found it easy to connect odors with corresponding emotions, and that they had actually enjoyed using them, and found them easy to incorporate into their conversations. On the basis of their responses and feedback, the researchers came to the conclusion that smells can be potentially used in enhancing a users’ implicit understanding of the emotional content of the messages in a textual conversation.

However, the researchers have stressed that this was just an early-stage test in understanding the true potential for olfaction in human-computer interaction. Further, one major problem with the study was that it was very culturally relative. Being a China based study, many of the odor-emotion connections discovered in the project were found to be bound specifically to the Chinese experience.

[Top Image: goodtimes.sc]

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