Love at first smell: What does sensory augmentation mean for romance?

Imre Bárd says he didn’t really consider whether Dr Wellentine’s Emporium of Sensory Curiosities – set up in a Georgian townhouse across from the British Museum and packed full of VR, odd smells and sensory-flipped games – would spark romance between couples.

Love at first smell: What does sensory augmentation mean for romance?

“The whole experience started with the replication of some experiments showing that people can recognise facial expressions of emotions on the basis of touching the other person’s face,” he explains.

Attraction is a game for the senses, but what happens when those senses are augmented, extended or otherwise confused? Instead of catching the eye of a potential partner across a train carriage, what if you found each other by chasing a trail of scent, or by feeling a throb on your wearable device or, indeed, by touching each other’s face? What happens to love at first sight, if vision is replaced with something else?


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Bárd runs a Wellcome Trust-funded series called Hack the Senses, which investigates perception and sensory exploration, and brings these ideas to a wider audience. “We started with a series of talks about perception last spring, we then hosted a sensory hackathon, and now we’re mostly working on interactive events, featuring game-like activities that demonstrate some aspect of how our senses work,” he explains.

Some aspects of the exhibition weren’t yet ready when my partner and I toured the townhouse of sensory delights on a rainy, Valentine’s Day evening, but most were up and running. These included attempts to solve a puzzle while wearing vision-flipping goggles, a Kinect camera that translated motion such as dancing into musical sounds, and choosing colours for a colouring book based on their smell.

“There is no real right or wrong solution to this, although the perfumes did have notes in them that may be more strongly associated with some colours than others,” Bárd said. “Since smells evoke memories and crossmodal correspondences in that domain are not as extensively researched as between, say, vision and hearing, we thought it could be fun for couples to compare and discuss how similar or dissimilar their associations were.”


Colouring by sense of smell…

One otherwise empty basement room featured an HTC Vive with an app that let partners paint worlds for each other (or simply watch each other spin around the room maniacally), while on the top floor competitive couples could have a go at BodyPong, a blind version of the game where players can’t see the ball but respond to auditory feedback.

Another setup encouraged attendees to chill together. “We equipped couples with an EEG-reading headband and used a piece of software written by us,” Bárd said. “The couple then entered a dark room and their task was to try to generate relaxed, calm brain activity, which sparked lights in an installation hung from the ceiling. The idea was that they should relax together because the activity was only triggered if their averaged signal reached a certain threshold.”

Perhaps the most amusing for couples – particularly those who have been together long enough to laugh at their partner’s public embarrassment – was the wonderfully named “scent trail”. Participants wore blindfolds and noise-cancelling headsets, crawling on hands and knees with their nose to a rug, following a maze laid out in scent. “On the trail, we had a very stereotypical male perfume and a very stereotypical female perfume, and players could choose which path to follow while having to avoid the other,” he said. “It’s a very interesting and unusual experience, where, after a while, one can hear nothing else but one’s own sniffing and the most salient sensory stimulus becomes smell.”

“Unfortunately, we ran into a technical issue with one of the coolest experiences one day before opening – one of the required cameras physically broke,” noted Bárd. “We wanted to do a VR body-swap experience, but had to skip this one.”

An evening of games isn’t enough to unpick the impact of sensory augmentation or replacement on whatever it is that sparks romance, but wandering through a townhouse playing games and taking selfies while wearing silly headsets isn’t a bad way to pass a date. “We have had very different reactions,” said Bárd. “Literally, we have spanned the whole spectrum, from: ‘I hated it’ all the way to ‘I loved it’. It was a hugely enlightening experience for us.”

Bringing online dating offline

Another Hack the Senses project, developed at a hackathon last year, offers a way to express digital matches in an offline setting. The project, called Sense the Match, created a badge that warms or lights up, or thumps like a heartbeat, when someone nearby matches your interests or other credentials – a clever way to link our physical sensory experiences to the online dating world.

Imagine if a smartwatch or phone buzzed every time someone who right-swiped you on Tinder walked within your physical range. “Although romance is intrinsically physical, both in terms of location and sensation, there seemed to be a gap in the dating products we were aware of at the time,” said Tom Paskhalis, one of the team members. “Currently, location is only a numeric value [that] one sees in an app or on a website. But with people constantly moving between and within cities, knowing when a potential soulmate is close and getting a sensory (e.g. tactile) signal at the right moment, could be a turning point. Combining this signal with an indication of psychological closeness could be even more valuable.”

Paskhalis said such tools could help make it easier to find a partner. “Dating apps have overtaken bars as places to meet new people in many parts of the world,” he added. “I think for whatever technology comes into our lives next, it’s important for it to allow the flexibility of combining old with new, an option to remain in your own cosy bubble and to meet people from all walks of life, [using] augmented signals with simple messaging.”

Such simple vibrations on the skin could do more than alert you to the presence of someone you’ve matched with online – they could also communicate emotions. Dr Marianna Obrist’s research centres on expressing emotions through touch, but in an unusual way. “The stimulation is through mid-air, which means without physical contact,” she explained. “The device we were using is developed by Ultrahaptics and allows the creation of tactile sensations in air.” While her experiments are ongoing, her work informed an exhibition at Tate Britain called Sensorium, which tested the emotional engagement with artwork via haptic patterns.

She’s suggested the technology could be used to end a fight between a couple after one has stormed off, by sending a comforting caress to their hand, or for “one-to-many” communication in crowds by sending a warm feeling to dancers in a club. “However, I believe there is also the opportunity to look into specific scenarios for blind and visually impaired people, as well as to enhance multimedia experiences, such as watching a movie – something we are working towards as well in our Lab and further combine it with other sensory stimuli such as our sense of smell, which is very powerful in relation to our emotions,” she added.

Instead of love at first sight, such sensory augmentation could lead to love at first caress, sent through the air from someone you haven’t met yet – and maybe never will.

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