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Soon, you’ll be able to smell ancient civilizations with your iPad

In late 2018, NASA will launch the enormous James Webb Space Telescope into orbit and use it to look at some of the most distant objects in the universe, some of which are light years away. Light takes so long to get from these galaxies to Earth that the telescope will be able to watch some of the earliest stars and galaxies form, giving scientists a look at how the universe began.

Unfortunately, we cannot look at Earth from millions of light years away and watch its early days of rivers of lava cooling, and continents forming. But with the help of Dr. Stuart Eve and his PhD-project-turned-iPad-app, we’ll be able to look at the world a few thousand years ago. With Dead Men’s Eyes, we can see early human settlements and conceptualize the prehistoric world in new ways with our own eyes and, oddly enough, our own noses.

the app becomes something of an archaeological tool

Dead Men’s Eyes is an app that Dr. Stuart Eve describes as an “embodied GIS.” GIS stands for Geographical Information System, and in this case, that information is an augmented reality recreation of a prehistorical site. Eve used 3D modeling tool Blender, game-making development tool Unity3D, and the GIS program QGIS to put his app together, all combined with the GPS information from an iPad. Being present at the site is important for Dr. Eve—instead of a VR-based exploration of a distant environment, the app becomes something of an archaeological tool. The reconstruction is directly in front of the viewer, laid on top of the real-world landscape. In the first location the app was prototyped for, the archeological data puts the prehistoric houses in the right places, with the right orientations. Writing at the Atlantic, Eve said,

“As I turned, the virtual houses updated their position and I could see the whole village. Seeing a reconstruction of the village that can be physically explored when you are standing in the real location is a visceral experience and, for me, comes pretty close to a time machine.”

(Pictured: The Dead Man’s Nose prototype)

Eve’s project is expanding, too—using Arduino boards, and computer fans attached to bottled scents, he is adding smell data to his embodied GIS to create an entirely new device, called the Dead Man’s Nose. It will allow visitors to archeological sites to smell the past, via a contraption worn around the neck. At the prototype site, the closer the visitor gets to a virtual house, the more the Nose pumps out the scents of smoke, and barbecuing meat, so that it smells like there are people cooking inside.

Photo of the Dead Man’s Nose taken from Dr. Stuart Eve’s blog.