Small and round, Cyrano looks like a portable speaker. But instead of musical playlists, it emits odors in timed combinations — “medleys,” to borrow company-speak — with titles like “Surfside” and “Einstein.”
I had never thought much about smelling Einstein before encountering Cyrano in the latest show at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
It’s called “The Senses: Design Beyond Vision.”
The exhibition features other adventures in First World consumerism. There’s hand-painted, scratch-and-sniff wallpaper (think Warhol’s patterned cows but with cherries — cherry-scented, naturally), as well as a device that projects ultrasonic sound waves to simulate the touch and feel of virtual objects. I felt what I think were meant to be champagne bubbles.
Sure, bring the kids. They will bliss out stroking a wavy, fur-lined installation that makes music as you rub it.
But fun and games aside, there’s a serious, timely and big idea here.
Since cave-dwelling days, humans have relied on sight more than any other sense. We apparently have the same number of genes for detecting smell as other primates, but half of them stopped functioning millions of years ago.
At what cost?
Vision is the most external and remote of the senses. We look at things that are apart from us, at some remove. By contrast, sounds vibrate inside us; smells inhabit us. We may not always be able to recall what some place looks like. But a smell can retrieve the memory for us.
Touch, the anthropologist Ashley Montagu once wrote, is “the parent of our eyes, ears, nose and mouth,” tethering us to the world. You don’t have to read Proust to know that taste also speaks volumes.
And our senses obviously commingle. Food has texture. That’s what those macadamia nuts and brown-butter wafers are doing in your mascarpone sundae. Subliminally, the tongue can even react to the sight of a polished stone. Sounds can register in your consciousness as colors, colors as tastes. (Picture the color of sour. It’s probably greenish.)
That said, what the writer Italo Calvino described years ago as an “unending rainfall of images” has swelled into a deluge. Social media, smartphones and virtual reality have made us ever more “ocularcentric,” a term the Finnish designer Juhani Pallasmaa employed a generation ago to lament how dependent architects had become on digital animation.
“Computer imaging tends to flatten our magnificent, multi-sensory, simultaneous and synchronic capacities of imagination by turning the design process into a passive visual manipulation, a retinal journal,” Mr. Pallasmaa argued.
Designers, he said, shortchanged all the nonvisual ways we experience architecture — and through architecture, the fullness of life. In their recent book called “Are We Human?” the architects Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley even correlate this approach by modern architects to modern medicine’s painkilling drugs.
Numb to other senses, ocularcentric architecture cultivates alienation.
What does designing more sensitively for nonvisual experience mean?
The huge new Bloomberg LP headquarters in London, designed by Foster + Partners, in collaboration with Sandy Brown, the acoustic consultants, may not be thrilling to look at from the outside. But inside, it exploits new technologies by Meyer Sound Laboratories, the Berkeley, Calif., firm.
Sound engineering turns open offices into private spaces, an auditorium into a confessional. These state-of-the-art acoustics weave a kind of invisible architecture into the fabric of the building.
Needless to say, one building can’t stack up against the wider universe of drones, pixels and earbuds. In general, we have taken leave of our nonvisual senses — and need to get back in touch, literally.
“A room is not just a cube punctured with windows and doors,” Andrea Lipps and Ellen Lupton, the show’s co-curators, write in the exhibition catalog. “A rug inhales noise; floorboards sigh with grief. Sensory design tweaks our skin, bones and muscles. It tickles, pinches and pops. It plays rough. It touches us, and we touch back.”
That’s where “Senses” comes in. Ms. Lipps and Ms. Lupton stress how touch, sound, smell and taste activate the natural “wisdom of the body.” Ms. Lipps also describes a collective “reality hunger,” which products like Cyrano, frivolous though they may seem, attempt to assuage.
The show brings together some 65 designers and teams. It presents commissions, videos, products and prototypes. Some address sensory disabilities like blindness and deafness. A device like Vibeat, for example, by a young Israeli designer, Liron Gino, is worn as a bracelet, brooch or necklace and translates music into vibrations that can be perceived by anyone, including the deaf.
Cheerfully colored tableware, devised for visually impaired customers, works for everyone else, too, including people with dementia, for whom distinguishing food from plates or liquids from containers can become a difficult and unappetizing chore.
There are art installations. “Seated Catalogue of Feelings” by Eric Gunther mixes chairs that vibrate with descriptive texts whispered through headphones and projected onto the floor (“Driving over a dead body”; “Sex on a washing machine”).
It doesn’t turn out to be as riveting as that scene from “Mad Men,” but it did inspire me to Google the name Morton Heilig, sometimes called the father of virtual reality, who, half a century ago, concocted a contraption called Sensorama. The size of a vending machine, it involved a 3-D video headset, a chair that moved, fans and a device that pumped out aromas.
Like the Rocket Belt, it failed to take off, commercially. But its promise of a fully immersive, multisensory experience today doesn’t seem far-fetched.
Ultrahaptics, a British-based company, invented that device that made the virtual champagne bubbles I mentioned earlier. Just as sounds can be felt through vibrations, those audio vibrations can simulate the feeling of objects in midair. Those objects can then be remotely manipulated.
I know what you’re imagining. But think beyond the pornographic angle.
In the not-too-distant future, ultrasound devices may create invisible sliders for adjusting the volume on your television or the flame on your stove. Bosch, the German electronics giant, has already introduced a concept car with haptic controls. Picture Wii without the hardware. Or “Minority Report.” Or that VR Lexus in “Black Panther.”
It’s all very exciting — even if sensory technology will always have its limits.
Hands-free driving is one outcome. But of course nothing will ever substitute for the feeling of holding your own child’s hand or the crunch of those brown-butter wafers.
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