David Edwards has been called a real-life Willy Wonka. The biomedical engineer has developed, among other things, inhalable chocolate, ice cream spheres in edible wrappers, and a device called the "oPhone," which can transmit and receive odors.
Edwards is based at Harvard, but much of his work has been done in Paris, at a facility he calls Le Laboratoire. Now he's opened a similar "culture lab" closer to home: Le Laboratoire Cambridge in Cambridge, Mass.
Cultural Research And Development
"Many of the questions that we face today — questions of innovation, of change — are not really questions we can deal with in a classical science lab," Edwards says. "And I think that's why culture labs are showing up increasingly around the world. By opening the creative process up to the public, it leads to a better understanding of how the world's changing, and why it's actually thrilling that it is."
Edwards has been inviting scientists, designers, composers, artists and chefs to collaborate on projects the public can experience as the work develops.
This open lab, a kind of cultural research and development effort, grew out of Edwards' earlier work: The biomedical engineer helped pioneer aerosol prescription drug delivery systems for patients with diseases like Parkinson's. After selling his company, Edwards applied the technology and the profits to chocolate delivery, calling it Le Whif.
"We've done a lot around 'air food' and other kinds of nutritional experiences that are without calories, that are all-natural, that are portable. And there's no liquid and all kinds of benefits," he says.
Or, instead of nutrition, how about a buzz? After Le Whif came Le Whaf, a machine that turns liquid — quite often alcohol — into fluffy clouds of consumable gas.
An Incubator For Unconventional Innovation Boston Globe technology columnist Scott Kirsner, who visited Edwards at the Laboratoire in Paris, says, "People come in off the street and say, 'What exactly is this? Can I buy something here?' "
Edwards takes great delight in explaining the concepts to visitors, Kirsner says. "I think he kind of does have that enjoyment of — you can't really put your finger on what is he trying to do and what is the point of it, exactly."
What's the point? Well, Wikifoods, little spheres of ice cream, yogurt or cheese wrapped in edible packing, are meant to cut down on landfill waste. In the U.S., Edwards is collaborating with the dairy company Stonyfield Farms to get "Frozen Yogurt Pearls" onto the shelves at Whole Foods.
Kirsner thinks the Laboratoire fills a void in a landscape loaded with incubators trying to create the next Facebook or Twitter.
"If he's creating a place where you can develop a new food product, or, you know, spawn some new nonprofit or some new cultural group, that's an interesting incubator to me," Kirsner says. "Because it's not just saying, 'Let's just create new public companies that are gonna be worth billions.' It's saying, you know, 'Let's create healthier foods that maybe could be distributed without refrigeration in the developing world, and let's do cultural innovation.' And not a lot of people are saying that.
Where Our Senses Can Take Us
The lab in Cambridge is also collaborating with MIT's Dalai Lama Center and a cartilage expert to explore how sound and vibration affect our minds and bodies.
One piece is called "Vocal Vibrations." Composer and MIT Media Lab professor Todd Machover says it invites Laboratoire visitors to sing and feel their voices vibrating through an egg-shaped "oRb."
"The sense is, 'Oh my gosh, I'm holding my voice in my hands,' " he says.
"It's exciting to have a place like Le Laboratoire, where they're willing to think about where different senses can take us and what happens if you combine them," Machover says.
Which brings us to the oPhone, a little device that transmits and receives "aroma messages." Chef Patrick Campbell collaborated with Edwards to concoct scents based on the dishes he's created for Le Laboratoire's restaurant. But the no-nonsense chef admits he was skeptical.
"The idea of someone sending, essentially, my dish across the ocean instantaneously, and there's three people in a Parisian coffee shop smelling my cavatelli or whatever it is, is a very interesting concept," Campbell says.
Like a lot of the concepts in the Laboratoire, the oPhone is a work in progress. But Edwards hopes visitors will test it out — and even help his team of researchers come up with some more practical applications. Copyright 2019 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.