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Smell Mapping: Using Your Nose To Retrace Your Steps


A couple of years ago on April Fools' Day, Google announced a feature it called Google Nose, a searchable database of smell. Brenda Salinas reports on new research showing that prank might not be such a dumb idea.

BRENDA SALINAS, BYLINE: Technology that has an olfactory component has captured our imagination for a long time. But in actual science, smell and taste have mostly taken a backseat.

LUCIA JACOBS: Olfaction is devilishly hard to control in the lab. And we have not really solved that very well, but no one's even asked the question. No one's even gone there.

SALINAS: UC Berkeley psychologist Lucia Jacobs published a study proving that people can create a map in their heads using different scents as location markers. She put vials of fragrances around a room and then led blindfolded subjects to a random point. On average, the subjects were able to find their way from the start to the endpoint in less than 90 seconds.

JACOBS: I could imagine, if you were a professional, like a wine professional or a perfume professional, I imagine that someone could tell another professional, well, you remember that lavender scented whatever? It was right next to that.

SALINAS: I wanted to put that hypothesis to the test, to challenge a professional and see who could get around better using just our sense of smell. First, a quick stop to the local aromatherapy store.

So I was wondering if it was possible to buy the smallest little samples of six, seven essential oils.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I could show you what we have.



SALINAS: I took my new aromatherapy kit to meet June Rodil, a master sommelier in Austin. Her co-worker Daisy Ryan set up the experiment. Step one - we each closed our eyes as she led us to different spots in a kitchen, each one marked with a vial of essential oil. First, me.

This one smells like a spa. OK, so, like, 10 steps. This one smells like a fancier spa. I don't know. They kind of smell the same.

Then it was Rodil's turn.

JUNE RODIL: Kind of like a clementine-tangerine, so you're in, like - we're in, like, soft citrus, so, like, an artificial soft citrus. OK.

DAISY RYAN: OK. Very well done.

RODIL: Oh, thank you.

RYAN: Don't open your eyes.

RODIL: I won't. I'm not (laughter).

SALINAS: Step two - our eyes still closed, we each try to retrace that same path. I gave up about halfway through.

So I guess I'm lost.

Unlike me, Rodil had no problem re-walking the path using just her sense of smell.

RODIL: That's my peachos - great, OK, second one. Third one - York Peppermint Patty. Yep, it's the spa. It's mecca spa, second floor.

RYAN: We're done.

SALINAS: That's it.

RODIL: (Laughter).

RYAN: You did it.

SALINAS: You did it.

Most of us will never develop the sense of smell of a master sommelier. Austin entrepreneur Steve Papermaster says pretty soon there'll be no need to. We'll have machines that smell for us. He's developed an electronic nose, a microchip that can smell.

STEVE PAPERMASTER: Well, the good news for the machines is they don't need to use words like salty or sweet or sour. They just need to understand what are they sensing and communicate the information or the data about it.

SALINAS: Right now companies are using electronic noses to detect small traces of chemicals in manufacturing and in medicine. Papermaster says, in a couple of years, we'll be surrounded by smelling, tasting microchips. They'll be in packaging, in our homes, even on our bodies. For NPR News in - Austin, definitely smells like Austin - I'm Brenda Salinas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brenda Salinas
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