RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
David Edwards has affectionately been called a mad scientist. But what could be mad about inhalable chocolate, especially if it has no calories? Edwards is a biomedical engineer based at Harvard. He founded a lab in Cambridge and Le Laboratoire in Paris. Space is devoted to artistic and cultural experiments. He's also known for his wiki food products with edible packaging. Some of his best ideas have to be eaten, or inhaled, to be believed. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR does her best to explain.
ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: David Edwards says change is inevitable. He wants to figure out a different way to deal with that.
DAVID EDWARDS: Many of the questions that we face today - questions of innovation, of change - are not really questions that we can deal with in a classical science lab. And I think that's why cultural labs are showing up increasingly around the world. By opening the creative process up to the public, it leads to a better understanding of, you know, how the world's changing, and why it's actually thrilling that it is.
SHEA: That's why Edwards has been inviting scientists, designers, composers, artists and chefs to collaborate on projects the public can experience as they're going on. This open lab, a kind of cultural research and development effort, grew out of Edwards' earlier work. The biomedical engineer helped to pioneer aerosol prescription delivery systems for patients with diseases like Parkinson's. After selling his company, Edwards applied the technology and the profits to chocolate delivery and called it Le Whif.
EDWARDS: 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 that - that really wasn't where we were at initially. We were just sort of exploring, well, would be possible to deliver nutrition through the air?
SHEA: Or at least a buzz. After Le Whif came Le Whaf, a machine that turns liquid, quite often alcohol, into fluffy clouds of consumable gas. Boston Globe technology columnist Scott Kirsner visited Edwards at Le Laboratoire in Paris.
SCOTT KIRSNER: People come in off the street and they're, like, what exactly is this? Can I buy something here? And he really took great delight in explaining the wiki foods concept. And I think he kind of does have that enjoyment of like you can't really put your finger on what is he trying to do, and what is the point of it, exactly?
SHEA: Wiki foods are little spheres of ice cream, yogurt or cheese wrapped in edible packaging. And their point is to cut down on landfill waste. In this country, Edward is collaborating with the dairy company Stonyfield Farms to get wiki yogurt onto the shelves at Whole Foods. Technology writer Kirsner thinks Edwards' lab fills a void in a landscape loaded with incubators trying to create the next Facebook or Twitter.
KIRSNER: 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. You know, that's a really interesting kind of incubator to me because it's not just saying let's create new public companies that are going to 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.
SHEA: 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.
TODD MACHOVER: Ah, that's the note you wanted. Ah.
SHEA: That's composer and MIT Media Lab professor Todd Machover singing along with his piece Vocal Vibrations that he says invites lab visitors to sing and feel their voices vibrating through an egg-shaped orb.
MACHOVER: The sense is, oh, my gosh, I'm holding my voice and my hands. 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.
SHEA: Which brings us to the oPhone, a little device that transmits and receives aroma messages. Chef Patrick Campbell collaborated with David Edwards to concoct scents based on dishes he's created for Le Laboratoire's restaurant. But the no-nonsense chef admits he was skeptical.
CHEF PATRICK CAMPBELL: 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. I mean it, obviously, just makes me hungry. And if I smelled that, I would immediately want to get something to eat.
SHEA: Like a lot of concepts here, the oPhone is a work in progress. One that visitors to Le Laboratoire can try out and even help researchers come up with some useful applications. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.
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