Mei Kei Lai is a Macau based researcher, designer and lecturer who is here in Singapore as part of the ISEA2008’s main juried exhibition. Her project entitled Does it make Scents to Have Fun is an ingenious pun on the use of scents/smells as the main interface for interactive design, joining a host of new media projects strategically positioned at the intersection of game design and technology, merging and maintaining the ludic spontaneity of the former while keeping close to hand the latter’s unrelenting progress.

Today we have a chat with Mei Kei Lai over melding aromas of chamomile and earl grey.

<portions of the interview have been excluded due to constraints>
Q: What got you started working on smells as the main tool for interaction?

A: Well, one of the reasons is i started on this project during my post graduate studies in London, so this exhibition is just to further this idea. Cos i don’t come from a graphic design standpoint, i think that most people just believe what they see – a kind of visualization generation, so i’m just wondering if visuals can tell you everything. It would be nice to see a picture, or a movie that had some smell! But after i started the research i realized that it wasn such a new idea! (laughs) Anyway i just started working on smell and tried to create some fun out of it. I would not consider myself a gamer, nor a game developer, i just want to make things that people can have fun with!

Q: For the exhibition this year, how does smell play a role in your installation?

A: For ISEA2008 the installation piece is a game thing- and smell is the interface. You will see I use smell as a core feature. In the past i have found a lot of models that just use smell as a reward, for instance, if you see a picture of an apple, you can smell the apple; but i find that many people do not really accept this. Most of them question “Why do you make it, does it make any sense? ” So i try to use smell as part of the core features, that the game cannot play if there is no smell. This is the way when i think about the project.

Q: Is this your first time exhibiting such a project?

A: I did two scenarios before. One involved moving towards a tree, and you had to decide what was falling out of the tree based on smells that were expelled during the installation – whether they were citrus or something like lavender. You had to discriminate the smells that were present.

The other one had a game scenario – husband and wife. The story went – husband is at a party and he gets drunk. and he has to go through a whole lot of women to find his wife by smelling them. I found that people liked this game the most. The game’s context/story was played rather than just a direct interaction. People still enjoy the first game, but the second was a lot more well-received.

There was a introduction/training into the smells in the first game. but the second game is more of a recognition cos as the start of the game, the smell was presented when the fictional protagonist kisses his wife in the initial parts – so it was more of a matching thing, essentially.

Q: So how about letting us in on how the installation would look like?

A: I’m trying to work with spray bottles, i try to avoid using air fresheners. Working in the space though, smell lingers and so i need to have a good ventilation system to prevent the smells from mixing up, maybe ill put a fan behind it. From my experience, it would probably work out, i’ve had installations where people just laughed at the smell cos it was so unexpectedly funny. There was a previous installation called Smell me, where i put two speakers out and a keyboard.  The air fresheners were put on the side while the speakers were put in front of the users, and at the beginning, the visitors were not aware of the location of the air fresheners -they thought the smell was coming from the speaker box!

But i try to move beyond this simple interaction to try to allow the user the control to decide what kind of smell is generated, instead of something i design. For example, i try to work on a game of hide and seek. there are two players involved – you have your own smell, and i have my own smell. So in a simulated city we have to find each other. Wherever you go, wherever you have been, the place will have your smell. So at each station or corner, the computer will register the smell and could be an indication of where the person is going. These are just some of the concepts that i can look into, but at ISEA2008, ill just be focusing on a desktop game, which is an installation connected to a computer indoors, with of course the spray bottles.

Q: How receptive is Macau to the emerging electronic arts scene?

A: The media arts scene is thriving in Macau, they do have exhibitions. But for most academics, for instance in the polytechnic i teach at, most media graduates become designers not artists. Most of them go to web design companies, or TV stations.

Q: I’ve never seen any Macau movies though..

A: Oh no, Just for news. (laughs) Even the people in Macau, we dont watch Macau programmes, just the news reports. We get our programmes from HongKong. The other thing is there are quite a lot of casinos there – most of them have very big screens outdoor, so some of my graduates do this kind of motion graphics for the casinos. For those interested in media arts they go into it mainly on a freelance basis. But most of the artists right now in Macau create basis installation artworks rather than interactive art. I personally am more into interactive design, as i am more interested in how the participants get involved and become part of the art work. There are also a group of people doing video art.

Mei Kei Lai’s work Does It Make Scents To Have Fun will be exhibited in the National Museum as part of the ISEA2008 main-juried exhibition. Come experience a more intense level of gaming immersion in this olfactory treat from the 25th July to the 3rd August 2008.

For more information about the artist and project please visit the ISEA2008 main site. Keep checking this site for latest updates and developments in the buildup to the exhibition.