Creating A Smell Print Through Artificial Scents

Blog, Journal for High Schoolers, Journal for High Schoolers 2021


Jude Kamal, April Mares, Serena Pulopot, Jasmine Vargas, Victoria Whipple, Caeley Woo, Devon Baur


Smell is the oldest of humanity’s five senses, and it’s used for almost everything – identification, safety, emotions, relationships, and memories. Despite this, it’s one of society’s most undervalued senses [20]. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are increasingly beginning to recognize the importance of our olfactory system. To help continue highlighting the necessity of smell, we created an installation in the Architecture and Design Museum in Los Angeles. This installation attempts to craft a unique smell experience connected to their memory of this event, a phenomenon known as a smell print, by exposing the museum-goers to a new manufactured smell free of cultural biases. In addition, the installation encourages visitors to think of smells and space in a way they hadn’t before.


Smelling is an incredibly quick process: in just two synapses, smell travels to the highest region of the brain [25]. The regions of the brain that are involved with olfaction are connected to the memory and emotion portions of the brain. As a result of this, smell and memory often become intertwined, with each person having their own unique smell print — the specific memory that they have attached to a smell [21]. Often, these memories go back many years, sometimes all the way back to early childhood; in this aspect, smell related memories diverge from typical memory patterns, as most people tend to suffer from a period of pre-adolescent amnesia where most memories before adolescence tend to be inaccessible.

However, most people are unaware of this link between smell and memory because most people tend to undervalue smell as a whole. In a 2019 survey of adults, smell was the sense that people would be most willing to lose [20]. These results weren’t limited to just adults — in a 2011 survey, 53% of young people (ages 16-22) would rather lose their sense of smell than their technological devices [20]. Part of the reason for this lack of appreciation for smell is that although we process smell almost instantly, smell often doesn’t pass through the conscious part of our brain. Certain smells that we’ve experienced hundreds of times before — like our bedroom or car — our brain has deemed as safe and we no longer consciously process these smells in a phenomenon known as “nose-blindness.” Other times, we become so bombarded by different smells that we can no longer distinguish any of the smells. Since we often aren’t consciously aware of what we’re smelling, people mistakenly conflate that with smell being unimportant.

But, for people whose sense of smell is altered, the value of smell can’t be overstated. Parosmia is when smells are distorted, like coffee smelling like rotting garbage. Parosmia can lead to a loss of identity, as people no longer feel like they are living their own life [9]. Parosmia can also impair daily life, causing people to avoid eating and anything that triggers unpleasant smells. Similarly, anosmia, the inability to smell, can have extremely negative impacts. Sadly, anosmia and depression are linked because both anosmia and depression impact some of the same brain levels, and in studies done on rats, impaired olfactory bulbs actually resulted in chemical changes in serotonin and dopamine [36]; as a result, anosmia both mimics the symptoms of depression and dovetails into it. Despite these incredibly real issues, many parosmics and anosmics report feeling misunderstood by their friends and family who don’t understand the severity of their condition; others even report doctors being unaware of what anosmia and parosmia was [28].

Now, with COVID-19, these once niche terms of “anosmia” and “parosmia” are becoming more commonplace as select COVID-19 cases result in both anosmia and parosmia. Collaborating with Los Angeles’ Architecture and Design Museum, we hope our Smell. Print. exhibit keeps the conversation about smell going and exposes more people to the tremendous importance of smell.

Methods & Materials

To efficiently create the exhibit our group divided into two teams — research and art.

Research Team: Smell Stimulus Survey

The research team’s initial objective was to analyze research articles and focus on those that were survey based. Our mentor instructed us to find inspiration for research questions we could use for our own study. We were to look for research we found most interesting and take notice of anywhere we saw an information gap so that we could add to that body of knowledge. Inspired by the question we were given — “How can we explore the implications of different scents?” — we were able to build our own research.

Through Zoom, we established constant communication with other members of the group. We utilized Google Documents to record our initial survey responses from our first trial set of questions. Our original questions were as follows: does this smell take you back to a memory, is it one memory or multiple, how strong is this memory, what is the date of the memory, and from what point of view did you see the memory. The questions we were given had to be answered based on the item’s odor, and the items initially included sunscreen, printer paper, an old book, chapstick, laundry detergent, and a blown out match.

Using Google Documents, we recorded our responses into a table and answered each question. From our responses, we noticed that some questions were unclear and some items were difficult to find; therefore, using Zoom we communicated with our mentor to give her the feedback we had about our experience answering the initial questions. From there, the research team was able to modify the questions, rewriting the questions to be answered specifically instead of the unstructured way they were originally posed. The questions later changed to be as follows: does this smell take you back to a memory, is it one memory or multiple, how vivid is the memory (on a scale of slightly to very vivid), what is the date of the memory, how does this memory make you feel (in a scale of 1[very bad]-10[very good]), how long did it take you to remember, and what is the significance of the memory (scale of slightly-very).

Once the questions had been modified, we made another trial run of the questions, but we explored two different modes: survey and interview. Using Google Forms, we were able to add the new questions, along with the new items, including sunscreen, printer paper, an old book, chapstick, laundry detergent, and dirt, to smell and then answer the new questions. For the interview approach, two members of the group were asked the same questions as on the Google Forms survey but used to record their responses verbally. We did this to understand which method would give us better results. The survey was more convenient due to time constraints and our goal for the number of participants we wanted to answer the questions. Based on the two different methods, our group members gave us feedback on the questions and the items they were asked to smell. We decided to eliminate printer paper and chapstick and replace them with fresh herbs, spice and add 2 more items, citrus, and crayon. With the new items, we also modified the questions to be clearer and more understandable. The new questions became as follows: please describe the memory in a short paragraph, how long did it take you to remember, is it one specific memory or many memories that are difficult to place, what is the date of the memory, and what brand/item did you use. These questions were then made into a survey using Google Forms, and we sent it out to as many people as possible.

After 48 hours of collecting data, we obtained over 40 responses. The responses were carefully analyzed to find the common words that participants used to describe the memories they associated with the items’ odors. From these common words, we decided to create word maps to display the most frequently used words participants used to describe the memory they had associated with each item they smelled. We also focused on the date and the time it took each participant to remember and added them to the word maps. From the eight word maps that were created, sunscreen, fresh herbs, old books and laundry detergent were displayed physically in the exhibit with the rest being available in the digital exhibit.

The scent machine, a key attraction of the exhibit meant to aid in museum goers’ experience of scent, runs on Python code. In order for the device to function, it must be given raw serial commands. Natlie Cygan, a Stanford student responsible for coding our machine, and Richard Hopper, a Research Software Engineer from SCHI Labs, provided insight on the function of the device: the machine switches off every sixty seconds and must be controlled using an iMac.

Design Team

Qr Code and Space Proposal

We decided to create an interactive component for the exhibit. To do so, we displayed QR codes around the exhibit space, following figure 1’s structure. Figure 2 shows how we visualized the exhibit space.

FIGURE 1 ( A visitor would use their mobile phone to scan a QR code)
FIGURE 2 (Exhibit Space Visualization)

Smemory Theater Video Approach

As part of the installation, we decided to create a narrative-style video to illustrate the experience of becoming anosmic, particularly the gaps in memory that form as a result of anosmia. One of the main components of the video was a miniature kitchen (shown in figure 3) that was built dollhouse style: the walls of the kitchen were made out of cardboard that we painted white; the floor and shelves were made out of popsicle sticks we cut in half; cereal boxes, toothpicks, and beads were used to make the kitchen cabinets; the tile backsplash and marble countertops were printed out; the stove top was made out of cardstock and silver foil; the fridge, dishwasher, and sink were made out of silver foil and toothpicks; the chairs and kitchen table were made of chopsticks, toothpicks, cardboard, cardstock, and nail polish; the gallery wall was made out of our photos and pictures of our paintings that we printed out; small items around the kitchen were made of clay, cardstock, popsicle sticks, chapstick caps, and scrabble tiles. Similarly, the playground slides used during the memory sequence were built in a miniature style out of chopsticks, toothpicks, and cardstock.

FIGURE 3 (The kitchen used in the Smemory video)

The other main component of the video included memories that were shot on an iPhone 8 using members of our group and our families. AfterEffects was used to stylize the videos and to digitally change the color of select objects during the video. To create the final video, iMovie was used to splice together the clips. Sniffing sound effects were used, and a recording of the hr-Sinfonieorchester conducted by Lionel Brunguier playing the Allegro con Grazia from Tschaikovsky’s 6th Symphony was used for the background music.

Animations Proposal And Approach

To create our frame-by-frame animated videos, we learned and explored the Adobe Creative Cloud Programs, including Adobe After Effects, Adobe Premiere Pro, Adobe Illustrate, Adobe Animate, and Adobe Media Encoder. We also used iMovie to splice some of our clips together. For file compression we used an application called HandBrake. We used Adobe Creative Cloud Programs over an open source program, Blender, because the Adobe system offers program adaptive files that makes the creation process more efficient. Figure 4 includes an example of our storyboards for the animations.

FIGURE 4 (“The Beach”; a final storyboard for our “Sunscreen” scent.)


Research Team

Forms response chart. Question title: How good do you think your sense of smell is?. Number of responses: 44 responses.
GRAPH 1 (How good do you think your sense of smell is? This graph shows the first question the Google survey asks. The x-axis is the scale from 0-5, 0 representing very weak and 5 representing very strong. The y-axis is the number of participants. The bars show the frequency of people who selected that value.)

Final QR Code Designs and Exhibit Space

Using Adobe Illustrator, we designed QR code frames (Figure 9). Within these frames sat a QR code linked to a webpage on the main exhibit’s website (Figure 10). The QR code was created with an online QR Code generator. We ended up with these designs to make it obvious that a visitor would have to scan a QR Code.

FIGURE 9 (Icons outlined in pink represent our eight scents. Icons outlined in blue represent the scents physically displayed at the exhibit. Icons outlined in green are not scent related: a. Represents Laundry Detergent b. Represents Old Books C. Represents Sunscreen D. Represents Fresh Herbs E. Represents Spices F. Represents Dirt G. Represents Lemons H. Represents Crayons I. Link to Main Website J. Link to Smemory Theater Video)
FIGURE 10 (Example of how a QR code would be placed within a QR code frame)

Our final physical exhibit space is in Los Angeles, California in cooperation with Los Angeles’ Architecture and Design Museum. The exhibit runs from August 6, 2021 to August 20, 2021 on select days. Figure 11 displays the final organization of our work.

Final Smemory Theater Video

In the end, the Smemory Theater video explored the associated memories someone might have with the smell of certain objects in a space that’s very familiar to them: their kitchen. The video moved through the kitchen, focusing in on different objects — coffee, lemons, dirt in a flower pot, a cookbook, and paprika — as the unseen narrator smelled them. These smells then each triggered their own memory, and the video cut away to “Smell-Memory Land,” which was signified by a slide that transported the viewer to the “Smemory Theater.” Here, different memories played out: stirring coffee, making lemonade, walking in a forest, reading an old book, and sprinkling paprika on a deviled egg.

However, the video soon took a sad turn. The narrator lost their sense of smell, and with it, all the smell-related memories. To signify this, the objects turned gray, and when the video cut to Smell-Memory Land, the landscape was gray as well because the memory was no longer there; now, there was something preventing the memory from playing out — a missing slide, a broken ladder, a toppled slide, or no Smemory Theater at all. With all the smell-related memories now all gone, the entire kitchen faded to gray as it was now nothing more than a kitchen.

Final Smell Print Animations

We created eight frame-by-frame animated videos for each smell: Sunscreen, Fresh Herbs, Laundry Detergent, Old Books, Crayons, Spices, Lemons, and Dirt. Figure 16 displays shots of the animations and explanations of the audio.



SUNSCREEN: “A Day at the Beach”

AUDIO: Ambient Beach Sounds

Mother: “Time to put sunscreen on!”

Child: “No, no, it’s so cold!”

FRESH HERBS: “Helping in the Kitchen”

AUDIO: Pasta Boiling

Friend 1: “What’s the next ingredient?”

Friend 2: “I think basil would be a good addition, go get some from the plant please.”

Friend 1: “Okay!”



Voice 1: “Hey, you made it!”

Voice 2: “Thanks for coming!”

Voice 3: “Don’t cry, it’ll be okay.”

Voice 4: “Right on time!”

Voice 5: “Look how old you’ve gotten.”

OLD BOOKS: “Learning to Play”

AUDIO: Simple Jingle Bells tune that transitions to a more advanced version of Jingle Bells

CRAYONS: “Elementary”

AUDIO: Ambient Classroom Music

Child: “Teacher! Look at my drawing!”

Teacher: “Wow, is that a dinosaur? You did a fantastic job!”

SPICES: “Spicing it up”

AUDIO: CHEF humming

Ambient pan noises and sizzling

LEMONS: “Lemons make Lemonade”

AUDIO: Ambient outside noises

Car driving by and honking

DIRT: “Rebellion in the Mud”

Child 1: “Aw, there’s no mud!”

Child 2: “Here, we can make some!”

Mother: “What are you guys doing?”

FIGURE 16 (Smell Print Animations (listed in no particular order).)



As we created our exhibit, we recognized there is a clear connection between smell and memory. Most of our Smell Stimuli Survey participants show this connection, as the recall time for “Immediately” for our scents ranged from 52.6% to 81.1%. Incoming feedback on our exhibit further suggests that we can successfully use technology to create art that intrigues an audience and encourages them to appreciate their sense of smell. We understand, however, that experiences and smells we worked with may not be universally recognized and contain American cultural bias.

Future Directions

Future work including ties of olfaction to memory would help to add onto and clarify the research. Relatively, there is not a lot of data on smell prints and memory, so additional research on memories and smell would be very helpful in expanding the field. Additionally, more research about how anosmia and parosmia work would be very helpful as it would support the research of the tie of memory to smell and how the absence or alteration of smell affects memory recall. More research and studies will hopefully occur in the future due to the mass experience of parosmia and anosmia as a result of COVID-19. This pandemic, while an incredible tragedy, has brought awareness to the importance of smell as a sense and will hopefully inspire more research in the field of olfaction.


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