Susanna Hertrich

Jacobson's Fabulous Olfactometer

Device, photography & video (2014)

This project probes an accelerated human evolution through a wearable device that enhances the human body – with the goal to help us cope with extreme environments.

Air pollution in big cities such as Beijing is reaching the point of threat. Coal consumption and fine particulates from vehicles induce asthma, bronchitis, and acute and chronic respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath and painful breathing. Jacobson’s Fabulous Olfactometer is a prosthesis for such extreme environments: It is a wearable device that extends our sensorial abilities to ‘smell’ airborne chemicals. Two sensors of air pollutants worn at the forehead register small particles and CO2 levels. This data is fed into a microcontroller. When a dangerous threshold is overridden, the two stepper motors on either side of the head set the gears in motion and the upper lip is pulled upwards, modifying the wearer's face similar to an animal behaviour called “flehmen”. This mechanism is inspired by an animal sense organ called the “vomeronasal organ” or “Jacobson’s organ” (named after its discoverer Ludwig Jacobson). This secondary olfactory sense organ enables certain animals to sense odourless chemicals. When the vomeronasal sense is triggered, the animal lifts up its upper lip to expose the organ.

The device’s fabrication and materiality plays with the aesthetic of the classical prosthesis while referencing the ancient human dream to obtain animal powers by wearing animal teeth or bone on the head. As a reference, the exaggerated gears at either side of the head are carved from animal bone. The term ‘fabulous’ refers to the current scientific debate whether or not humans show rudiments of a vomeronasal organ.

This project asks how we could make use of existing technologies to extend our bodies in unexpected ways and so fast-forward human evolution. It also reflects on an ancient human desire to acquire animal skills to help us turn into “better humans”.

— Material & dimensions —

Device: Leather, aluminium, camel bone, arylic, metall motors, cables, microcontroller, battery pack in acrylic case / dimensions: 40 x 40 cm. Photography: C-print (Lambda print on Fuji Crystal DP II), 30 x 30 cm

— Video link —

— Thanks —

This project was kindly supported by the following organisations: