Virtual Synesthesia Challenge | NYU Tandon School of Engineering

Virtual Synesthesia Challenge



In collaboration with the Fragrance and Beauty and Film and Images teams and the Global Innovation Practice at CHANEL, the NYC Media Lab (NYCML) undertook the Virtual Olfaction Challenge to explore creative, cutting-edge concepts related to the sense of smell in virtual world interactions. 

Accordingly, CHANEL and NYCML identified six student, startup and university teams that are leveraging emerging technologies including artificial intelligence to design and build products that offer novel solutions to answer the question: 

How can one leverage scent and synesthesia to tell a story in bold new ways?

This twelve-session program encouraged participants to consider novel ways and ideas to incorporate actual scent in digital worlds and digital applications in physical worlds.  A goal was to build upon the talents of perfumiers who have long used sound and visuals to evoke smell, as in their advertisements and packaging, so are familiar with creating smell where there is none.  

While the six teams developed their concepts across the period from November 2023 through February 2024, they were inspired by not only the Challenge’s project leader, creative technologist and NYU Faculty Winslow Porter, but also by a series of invited speakers: 

Emilie Baltz, immersive experience director and artist, museum designer, multisensory technologist

Devon Baur, PhD, UCLA, Computer Film and TV, PhD Stanford Engineering, Dissertation on Smell in Art and Technology

Andreas Keller, Olfactory Art, Scientist, Geneticist, Author of The Philosophy of Olfactory Perception

Dr. Emanuela Maggioni, Founder, CEO and CTO, OW Smell Made Digital 

David Sheinkopf, Creative Technologist, Founder of Smooth Technology

The Challenge came to a close with a one night Showcase on March 5, 2024 featuring interactive exhibitions at NYU Tandon @ the Yard, the NYCML’s 14,000 sq ft production and research facility, consisting of two production studios as well as other systems for working with emerging media technology. Teams presented simultaneously throughout the space, encouraging viewers to participate in visual and olfactory experiences. Open to the public and invited guests, the Showcase was sold out. The night concluded with Challenge awards given to 3 teams. The "Journey Award", for the team(s) with most interesting voyage from beginning to end, a tie between City Scent & Sensify, and the "Innovation Award", for the most successful idea and execution which went to Scentience.

The Presenting Teams and Project Briefs:

AI Reimagined Participants: Yutian Ma, Tainy Xu, Henry Lu, Matan Cohen Grumi

An immersive short AI film about the history of CHANEL N°5. showcased on a state-of-the-art LED screen, “Eternal Fragrance” follows the narrative of a Woman as she transcends time following the historical creation and journey of this iconic perfume. Utilizing both live footage and AI generated environments, the film invokes the olfactory senses through a solo visual tale of fashion and time.

Aresphere Participants: Audrey Chou,Haoquan Wang, Yiyang Cao         

An introspective AI short film paired with participatory immersive scent and sound. Titled “Forbidden Fruit”, tells the story of a fashion and performance as seen through the eyes of a differently-abled, performer. Paired with the short film, viewers are invited to experience a day in her life through smells that invoke home and personal space such as the smell of a bedroom, basement, or hallway. The film aims to show the heightened smells of someone who must rely on other senses beyond the ability of full movement.

Blum Participants: Tom McCluskey, Annelise Lee, Noah Lee

An exploration of the impact of COVID19 on smell through interviews and immersive scent. Titled “Scent of Resilience” this short documentary showcases people’s experience with smell dysfunction post Covid19, how they coped and regained the sense of smell. The film is accompanied by scented stickers representing the different smells used to retrain the mind's ability to translate smell again.

City Scent Participants: Binyan Michelle Xu, Olivia Jiaxuan Yin, Wei Wu

A cinematic performative journey of dance and smell interpretation. Mastered with Motion Capture (MOCAP) and performed to the backdrop of a LED screen, this experience invited the audience to participate in an undefined scent, upload feedback via QR code, which was then uploaded  to a ESG Sensor worn by the performer. The performer then interpreted her experience of scent via movement against a complementary constructed 3D world.

Sensify Participants: Ploy Pruekcharoen, Harsh Palan, Xinlei Cui

An interactive installation and multi-sensory experience asking the question, “If AI had memories, how would it look, sound, or smell?” Utilizing OW digital smell technology, sensors were used to disperse recognizable smells into the atmosphere.  Participants experienced both identifiable smells while viewing  its digital kinetic output via AI on a projected screen.

Scentience Participants: Vince Picone, M Dougherty, Adnan Aga, Una Zhang, Shuang Cai

An installation of scent as a personal and immersive exploration into the unseen world of aromas. Mastered with Motion Capture (MOCAP) and performed on a LED screen, “Scent of Use” invites participants to smell 4 distinct scents found in the natural world via analog diffuser, while a diffusion trigger presents a visual body mapping experience on the LED wall and auditory output.



CHANEL is a global leader in the luxury category, in both the strength of their brand and their business results. Despite these successes, CHANEL recognized the world is changing faster today than ever before. The Global Innovation Practice at CHANEL was born in 2017 of a desire to study the transformative forces, be they cultural, economic, commercial, or technological, that could one day impact their clients and their business. The mandate is to “éclairer le chemin” for the House – providing better visibility into these forces by accelerating the House’s ability to identify and explore new opportunities.

Their work spans across CHANEL’s three divisions and five regions. They conceptualize new services, experiences, revenue streams and business models that are a step ahead of the change, and work with our internal partners to bring these innovations to life. As a small team, they embrace a culture of iterative learning and strive for progression over perfection – working nimbly and employing low-cost experiments that garner maximum learning.

Past Programs

Synthetic Media Challenge

In 2021, NYC Media Lab and CHANEL conducted a semester-long project with graduate student teams exploring how emerging synthetic media production might impact the future of storytelling, giving form and expression to early-stage concepts.

The participating teams were: 

Bigotis Fabra (Irene Font Peradejordi and Victor Perez Muñoz ), Cloud Theory (Colleen Macklin, Jason Li, Emi Sato, and Anna Garbier ), “Feed” by IMUU (Weilu Ge and Kelon Cen ), GANgang (Kevin He, Nick Boss, and Paul Baumgartner), SNAP MIL (Ziv Schneider and Shirin Anlen).