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Does your air freshener need an app?

The scent of loneliness

My office stinks. Not in a "this is a bad place to work" sense, but in a "smells like fake guava and coconut" sense. It’s not usually like this, but over the past week I’ve been testing a tiny gadget called Cyrano that lets out various scents in an attempt to make you feel a little better. So far, it’s just giving me a slight headache.

Cyrano is a squat silver cylinder that’s about half the height of a can of Coke and roughly an inch wider around. It’s made of brushed aluminum and has a removable vented lid to cover dispensers that squirt 12 different scents into the air. Cyrano knows what scents to squirt out by connecting to your iOS device via Bluetooth and following instructions from an app called oNotes. Starting today, it’s can be bought online for $149 from Vapor Communications.

The oNotes app for Cyrano lets people choose one of three goals: Get Energized, Get Relaxed, or Get Away. If you select Get Away, the app starts to "play" a scent melody, which is a string of scents lined up together including guava, coconut, venetian bellini, and suntan. Each smell is dispensed from Cyrano for 35 seconds with a 22-second "take a breather" break in between that is supposed to give your nose a rest. You can add or take away scents, according to what you want to smell.

If you’re asking yourself why you’d want an app-operated air freshener, you’re not alone. Cyrano is the brainchild of olfactory enthusiast Harvard professor David Edwards, who has a reputation for taking pie-in-the-sky ideas and bringing them into the real world. His inhaled insulin gives diabetics insulin without shots, and his inhaled tuberculosis vaccine is a way for people in developing countries to get a TB shot without the risk of needle infection. Edwards’ inhaled nutrition gets used daily by leading chefs around the world, and the oPhone has been used to share scent messages. So someone in La Jolla, California can share the smell of a grilled burger with someone in Verona, Italy as long as they each own the right devices.

Compared to other David Edwards ideas, the scent-spewing Cyrano is positively concrete — even a bit ho-hum. Why is he bothering with this sort of Bluetooth-enabled Febreze?

Vapor Communications

Edwards says that the identification of scents can be tied in with health, and can be used for monitoring people with degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. Along with sending scent directives to your Cyrano, the oNotes app includes a game that quizzes people on scents. Cyrano sends a scent into the air, you smell it, and answer a multiple-choice question about what it is.

"These scores can be helpful to those at risk of cognitive degenerative disease to monitor cognitive health and potentially improve it," Edwards says. He cites clinical tests that have shown strong correlations between scent sensitivity and metabolic and cognitive states. "We believe the digital scent experience with Cyrano will enable the empowerment of health and wellness apps that will guide consumers to eat better, sleep better, and seek medical attention more promptly," he says.

Vapor Communications

Even when we give Edwards the benefit of the doubt about what he’s describing, Cyrano is still just an expensive air freshener to most people. Sure, the idea of sending us certain scents to change our moods makes sense. My state of mind takes a positive turn when I smell raisin bagels in the toaster or my nine-month-old son's skin. But the smells coming out of Cyrano smell a long way off from baby skin. I'll admit that I liked a few of Cyrano's scents — especially peppermint, which may have helped me feel more relaxed. Cyrano fits in the cupholder of a car, and the space inside a car is just about what Cyrano can fill up; its scents get lost in larger spaces. Cyrano comes with one Natural Mood cartridge, but each additional cartridge costs $19.99 and only lasts about a month. The rechargeable Cyrano battery lasts for 36 hours.

The future of Cyrano is more interesting to me than its current state: instead of mainstream scents that anyone can find in a Glade candle, cartridges will include figurative scents like success and loneliness. (I can’t imagine anyone wanting to smell like loneliness, but I’m really curious to know what success smells like.) Vapor Communications will also announce partnerships with the automobile, food, fragrance, and entertainment industries.

Edwards thinks that smells could change the world, but before they do, Cyrano just needs to do a better job of changing the cloying, tropical stink in my office.