For two decades, the artist and experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats has been producing works that explore how we humans perceive ourselves and our place on this planet. He does this through books and exhibits, but mostly through oddball inventions. A camera that takes a single exposure over the course of 1,000 years, so we can visualize the abstract concept of climate change. A clock that uses an Alaskan river to measure time. A pornographic film for plants that features “uncensored pollination.”
Keats’s latest invention is the Pheromonophone, an inflatable suit with tubes coming out of it that records your body odor onto a carbon capsule. You then can ship that capsule to a lucky recipient who inhales the air pumped through the capsule to sample your unique nimbus. It sounds disgusting, and probably is—thankfully, Keats has only built one prototype. The prankish device is a rumination on our desire for deeper, more visceral communication with our distant friends. Think about it: How much better would Zoom calls be if you could not only see and hear but also smell the other person on the screen?
Keats and his olfactory invention are the subjects of a new Audible-exclusive audiobook being released today, The Curious Case of the Pheromonophone. Author and narrator Michael Epstein follows Keats around Silicon Valley as he demos the foul fabrication for wide-eyed investors and jaded engineers. The resulting conversations expose more about how Silicon Valley perceives itself than the marketability of the silly smell-tech. But that’s sort of the point.
This is where I must tell you that Keats is a frequent WIRED contributor, and that when he does write for us, I often serve as his editor, critiquing his ideas and shaking him down for copy with angry emails. For some reason, he still wanted to talk to me about the Pheromonophone and the audio journey that resulted from its unboxing. Our interview (the Zoom connection thankfully could only support picture and sound, not smell) has been edited and condensed.
WIRED: Tell us about the device you invented, the Pheromonophone.
Jonathon Keats: If you think back to 1960s sci-fi, people in those stories are able to have video calls. It seemed exciting, but when we finally got there, a lot of people were underwhelmed. People have these teleconferences, but nobody feels like they’re really connecting.
So, as I often will do, I started looking back. I looked to the history of communication, past Alexander Graham Bell and Samuel F. B. Morse, all the way back to the Neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis. They would communicate primarily by smell, by some sort of pheromonal communication. We’ve had this form of communication all along without even realizing it. In fact, we’re currently doing everything we can to try to cut it off with various sorts of deodorant. I thought maybe this was a missing link, the missing part of how people might be able to better connect.
I made a working prototype of the Pheromonophone. I bought a suit on eBay that is used for exercising, so that you sweat more and therefore lose weight. It blows up on your body, and the air that runs through the suit is captured in a pellet of activated carbon. That pellet is then sent to somebody else. They put on a face mask, and by pumping air through the pellet and into the mask, they are able to get a whiff of your pheromones that have been captured in the carbon pellet. All of this was made using cheap hardware materials because I didn’t have much of a budget. I was really working in the mid two figures.