The Synesthetic Mask

Today, an article on Popular Science was published about a mask that allows to you to smell a color, such interesting device was created by Zachary Howard, an aerospace engineer and artist-in-residence at Autodesk.

The mask reads the color from a surface and then it’s converted to its RGB components, which are used to create a mixture of scents from a basis of three essential oils – grapefruit for red, tree tea for green and lavender for blue – and released to the mask, allowing you effectively to smell a color.

As it has been my area of curiosity and study for the past months, the visual experience is rich and complex and may differ from person to person. Perceiving a color implicates psychological factors that are not necessarily quantifiable. In a similar manner, the sense of smell inevitably associates a scent with food, scenery, moments or even persons in memory.

I believe that a synesthetic sensation between these two senses inherently has to provide a similar mixture of sensations in the brain. Below, there are a couple of ideas that can be implemented to enhance this ingenious device.

HSL instead of RGB

The sRGB system works perfectly fine for a normalized representation of a color stimuli in an electronic display, but if we think of it as the guide to create the smell of a color it has a couple of drawbacks.

For one, the RGB system lacks of fine details regarding the color. Factors like the lightness or saturation are left aside and the resultant color is heavily dependent on the gamma correction of the device. This, translated to a scent based area implies that we could miss subtle details tat can enrich the experience, for instance the difference in perceiving a green in daylight, than the same green in a shady room.

The proposition in this case is to use instead the HSL (Hue, Saturation, Lightness) basis.

The first component (hue) can alone tell the tone of the scent the mask will create. Depending on the hue (which can be translated to an angle in the hue circle) it will tell us if the color is a red, yellow, green, blue or purple (or pretty much any tone in between).


The second component (saturation) will tell how strong or concentrated the scent has to be, thinking of this as how much of the scent we can perceive. For instance, a low saturated color will provide a subtle tone of scent, while a full saturated color will give a strong, vivid smell.

As an example, a full saturated tone can give a strong smell of pine trees on a spring humid day, while a low saturated will just create a subtle sensation, like the soft scent you get walking in the woods on fall in a dry day.


The third component (value) can indicate a third parameter regarding the full spectrum of scent (probably bitterness vs sweetness, or cleanliness vs dirtiness). For instance, a low valued color can give a more dark tone of oranges (almost sour, like the type of citrus flavor you’ll get in a man’s cologne), while its counterpart of high valued color will give a sweet, juicy tone (like a fresh orange just squeezed).

Psychology of Color to determine the Base Scents

In Zachary’s current mask, there are three basic tones to create the final color scent: grapefruit, tea tree and lavender. The scents created are quite limited to those three tones and for sure any color in the white-black scale may not be pleasant at all (in RGB grays are represented by equal amounts of the three basis), whereas a black color for example, might be majestic and evoke any type of positive sensations.

The suggestion is to use a wider set of scents for the basis. A multiple set of tones would allow a larger set of scents, hence enhancing the experience and matching to the complexity of color perception.

In the ideal case of a synesthetic mixture, the brain may experience the same sensations through a different vehicle. This implies the application of the psychological meaning of colors, and possibly integrating some knowledge of fragrance making to know how to blend a scent with its particular changes in tone.

This way, if we are perceiving a red, the scent created has to trigger the same sensations in the brain as the color itself would do.


In conclusion, the Synesthesia Mask is an interesting and fun device, and more than the mere experience of doing it, it can help to understand the way the brain triggers sensations regarding color or scents, or how these mixtures of stimuli affect the way we perceive the world.


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