What if you could travel back in time and experience the last four minutes of a famous person’s life? Well, you can, if you’re willing to lock yourself in a morgue cabinet in the dark, listen and deeply inhale the air around you.
That’s the only mildly-scary premise behind the Famous Deaths project, created by Marcel van Brakel and other members of Sense of Smell. At South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, van Brakel described what it was like to bring people into the machine, which recreates the deaths of Whitney Houston, Muammar Gaddafi, John F. Kennedy and Princess Diana by layering specific smells together found at the scene.
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“With smell, we used imagery already present in the brain to tell a complete story,” he explained.
Willing to try it? First you must lock yourself in a morgue cabinet, which might be enough to scare a person out of the room to begin with. Then, a specially made “smell printer” pumps 9 different smells for each story. Using details from the story and photos from the crime scene, van Brakel and his team recreated everything through smell — from the dinner Whitney Houston had the night she died to the used pipe near her bathtub.
“Some people thought their hair was on fire when we exposed them to the smell of meth,” he added.
As part of a workshop on introducing the power of smell into an entertainment experience, van Brakel’s work is a precursor to a potentially powerful entertainment experience. As VR becomes more prevalent, the possibility of a reliable smell component can be an interesting way for users to immerse themselves in the story they are viewing.
The result is visceral — van Brakel said that people who try Famous Deaths often get reactions from smell they wouldn’t otherwise have, like the feeling of their body temperature rising at the smell of fresh fires.
“They thought we turned up the temperature in the box, but all they had was the smell,” he said.
If you’re brave enough, van Brakel said that Famous Deaths will be available for experience stateside in New York in the coming months. You can find more information about the exhibit’s travels here.
Follow our coverage of SXSW 2016 here