Digital scent speaker Cyrano seeks to thrive in a difficult consumer realm.
It is hard to design for the nose. The olfactory system is very picky and can easily be overpowered. Air fresheners attempt to provide environments that smell pleasing, but they only dispense one scent and often either fade into the background or feel polluting.
Little wonder that screen-based technology such as movies, TVs and computers have been around for over 100 years yet still only cater to our sense of sight and sound. There have been various ill-fated forays into scent-based movie enhancements such as Smell-OVision and scratch-and-sniff cards timed to TV shows, but no one has cracked the code on making scent entertaining. Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup Vapor Communications is hoping to change that with its new product, Cyrano.
Cyrano ($149.95, onotes.com) is a 3-inch-tall digital scent speaker. It has a cylindrical body about the diameter of a pint glass and emits fragrances as commanded by the smartphone app that controls it. The main body holds the electronics and fans to push the fragrances into the environment; the fragrances are housed in a cartridge that clicks into the unit.
Each cartridge is pre-loaded with 12 different fragrance gels that make up an olfactory theme. For example, the Natural Moods cartridge includes scents such as pine, coconut, lilac and vanilla. The technology allows scents to be dosed individually or mixed by the user to create his or her own “mood melody.” Replacement cartridges—$19.99 for a pack of three— last about two months.
A big part of Cyrano’s appeal is its ability to control the scent profile through the free smart phone app. The timing of the fragrance release can be programmed through the app. The scent profiles can be sent to other users to share the experience. Cartoon characters named Alex and Cyro are featured in animated content that can be synched up with Cyrano.
Harvard, Paris Research
Cyrano is the result of research that started at Harvard University. Harvard engineering professor David Edwards was teaching a class called “How to Create Things and Have Them Matter.” The class was working on virtual placebos, and a few students came up with a device called the scent phone to digitize the delivery of aromas. Edwards is also the founder and director of a nonprofit lab in Paris called Le Laboratoire (lelaboratoire.org/en/); at the end of class he invited a few students to continue their work on the scent phone there.
The research of two students working at Le Laboratoire focused primarily on coffee and scent. Prototypes were made with off-the-shelf microcontrollers such as the Arduino, and they worked with coffee makers Toby’s Estate from Australia and Coutume in Paris who gave them espresso powders for experimenting.
In summer 2013, the first iteration of the product, then called the Ophone, debuted at an exhibition at Le Laboratoire. “At that time … it was very primitive and it did not seem very obvious that there was a big invention here,” Edwards recalls.
That fall, he gave a talk at the Wired Conference in London. Edwards and his student and future cofounder, Rachael Field, brought a modified version of the Ophone. They set up a virtual coffee bar where conference-goers could download an app and create their own virtual coffee by mixing scents such as coffee, caramel and chocolate and then text their order to the coffee bar on the premises. “It crashed the app … and it was amazing,” Edwards says. “Everybody was experiencing scent in a different way, and it was confirmation that there was something here.”
A Bevy of Refinements
Later that year, Edwards and Field formed their company, Vapor Communications, around the technology and continued work on the device. Edwards has more than 100 patents in a variety of fields, and it was a nobrainer to file both international and domestic patents to protect the innovation.
Meanwhile, they made more refinements. Field moved away from the Arduino-based prototypes and started designing her own circuit boards to shrink and refine the device. There was also major development on the scent cartridge. Light, sound and scent all travel to our sensory receptors through the air, but scent is the only one that has mass and therefore is more difficult to control. Too much scent can cause an environment that feels polluted; too little for too long of a time desensitizes the nose.
The solution was to hold the scent in a gel. This allows the unit to use very little of the fragrant oils without the risk of them drying out quickly. It also allowed them to use convective transfer of the scent via three fans inside the unit without having to use a heating device. This allowed them to change and mix scents quickly.
Advanced prototypes of Cyrano helped the team get outside investment. Edwards had success starting other companies in the health care and food industries, and had private investors in his Rolodex. He was able to raise $5 million in seed money from investors who had helped him with other ventures. This allowed him to open an office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which now has five employees.
The investor was also able to introduce the team to an overseas manufacturing group that is making the main body of Cyrano. The manufacturer helped make advanced prototypes to further validate the product and has been doing small prototype runs in the rampup to full production in spring 2017.
The scent cartridges are manufactured in the United States. The Cyrano team partnered with International Flavors and Fragrances, a world leader in flavor and scent products and technology. IFF helped Edwards refine the scent gels for the cartridges and is also supplying the scent chemicals that fuel Cyrano.
It is an uncertain but exciting time for the Cyrano team, which is taking orders from the website while ramping up production for the official launch in early 2017. Thoughw on-demand scent-producing devices have fallen short in the past, the team hopes to make the Cyrano scent speaker a mainstream product in homes across the country.