Synesthesia Mask Could Let You Smell Colors

February 29, 2016 | Elizabeth Knowles

Synesthesia mask
Photo credit: Screen capture from Instructables video

Blue smells like lavender

Have you ever thought of the letter “A” as red or that purple smelled like grapes? People with synesthesia make these kinds of associations all the time. It is a rare neurological condition where two or more senses intertwine. Zachary Howard, an aerospace engineer and an artist-in-residence at Autodesk, wanted to experience synesthesia himself and so he set about creating a mask that could let him smell colors.

The first element he had to construct was a sensor that could detect color and send it to a processor that would break it down into red, green, and blue. Each color was given a particular scent — grapefruit for red, tea tree for green, and lavender for blue. They were blended together depending on the color “seen” by the sensor and spread towards Howard’s nose with the help of two fans.

SEE ALSO: Trick Your Brain into Turning a Black and White Photo to Color

“Analogous to the way that pixels combine varying amounts of red, green, and blue to make different colors, the mask dispenses proportional amounts of a "red", "green", and "blue" scent to match the color you are touching,” Howard explains in an Instructables tutorial.

He discovered that some of the smells were more pleasant than others: a gray wall for example, wasn’t very enjoyable, but anything blue was pleasing. “I’d get this amazing blast of lavender,” he says. He emphasized the need for watering down the scents used in the test tubes so that they weren’t too overpowering. I bet people with synesthesia sometimes wish they could water down their senses.

Since it was a DIY project, he used “an off-the-shelf mask, a 3D printer, and some electronics knowledge,” as mentioned in the video below. The Instructables page gives step-by-step instructions, but it isn’t a project for beginners.

Howard isn’t the first person to have created a device that can convey one sense through another. Artist Neil Harbisson was born completely color blind. But, with the help of cyberneticist Adam Montandon, he designed an eyepiece worn on his head that transposes “the light frequencies of color hues into sound frequencies.” Using this device, he can listen to colors through antenna implanted into his skull.

“"I don't feel that I'm using technology, I don't feel like I'm wearing technology," he says in a short film. "I feel like I am technology."

What sense would you like to experience through another?

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