For two decades, experimental artist and philosopher Jonathon Keats has produced works that explore how we humans perceive ourselves and our place on this planet. He does it through books and exhibitions, but above all through bizarre inventions. A camera that takes a single exposure over 1000 years, so we can visualize the abstract concept of climate change. A clock that uses a Alaska River to measure time. A pornographic film for plants that stars “uncensored pollination. “
Keats’ latest invention is the pheromonophone, an inflatable suit with tubes coming out of it that registers your body odor on a carbon capsule. You can then ship that capsule to a lucky recipient who inhales the air pumped through the capsule to taste your unique halo. It sounds disgusting, and it probably is – luckily Keats only built one prototype. The prankster device is a rumination about 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 odour the other person on the screen?
Keats and his olfactory invention are featured in a new Audible exclusive audiobook released today, The strange case of the pheromonophone. Author and narrator Michael epstein follows Keats to Silicon Valley as he demonstrates dastardly manufacturing to wide-eyed investors and jaded engineers. The resulting conversations reveal more about how Silicon Valley perceives itself than the commercialization of stupid scent technology. But that’s sort of the point.
This is where I have to tell you that Keats is a WIRED contributor, and that when he writes for us, I often serve as his editor, criticizing his ideas and shaking him for copy with angry emails. For some reason he still wanted to tell me about the pheromonophone and the audio journey that resulted from unboxing it. Our interview (the Zoom connection luckily could only handle the picture and sound, not the smell) was edited and condensed.
WIRED: Tell us about the device you invented, the pheromonophone.
Jonathon Keats: If you think back to 1960s science fiction, the people in these stories can make video calls. It sounded exciting, but when we finally got there a lot of people were disappointed. People have these conference calls, but no one really feels connected.
So, as I will often do, I started to look back. I watched the history of communication, past Alexander Graham Bell and Samuel F. B. Morse, all the way back to the Neanderthals and Homo heidelbergensis. They communicate mainly by smell, by a kind of pheromonal communication. We have always had this form of communication without even realizing it. In fact, we are currently doing everything we can to try and cut it with different kinds of deodorants. I thought maybe that was a missing link, the missing part of how people could better connect.
I made a working prototype of the pheromonophone. I bought a costume on eBay which is used for exercise, so that you sweat more and therefore lose weight. It explodes on your body and the air that passes through the suit is captured in an activated carbon pellet. This tablet is then sent to someone else. They put on a face mask, and by pumping air through the pellet and into the mask, they are able to breathe in your pheromones which have been captured in the carbon pellet. All of this was done with cheap hardware as I didn’t have a lot of budget. I was really working in the middle of the double digits.