Sound, touch and smell are the focus of a research programme being undertaken in France as designers seek to create a more comfortable travelling environment for passengers

ODOUR-release seating and mellifluent warning tones could become common features of trams, metros and suburban trains in future as interior designers look beyond industry convention to improve the passenger environment.

Tours-based RCP Design Global is at the forefront of conceptual transport research. Working with partners Alstom, RATP and SNCF, RCP is looking to improve the sensory experience and make passengers feel more comfortable on public transport.

The agency has built up a sizeable portfolio of projects focusing on both the internal and external environment: it designed the entrance to the moving walkways at Paris Montparnasse station, and crafted the latest brand image and livery for SNCF's Transilien network.

Having designed the interior of the Alstom Citadis cars used on Paris' T3 tram route, which opened in 2006, RCP is now focusing its attention on the Le Mans cars, the first of which was delivered in January 2007 (RG 3.07 p132), and future Citadis cars destined for Angers (above) and Alger.

Assessment and design

RCP uses its 'Sensolab' concept to offer 'added sensory value' in its designs. Sensolab is a division within RCP that focuses on applying quantifiable criteria to often nebulous notions of touch, smell and feel through two related approaches — sensory assessment and sensory design.

Sensory assessment aims to quantify and describe, in a systematic manner, all human perceptions when confronted with a product or an object using techniques initially developed for the food industry. Contrary to laboratory analysis, the perception of a product is carried out by a panel of trained testers comparing similar products.

The result allows researchers to establish a list of specifications and to set out a precise and quantified requirement. These are applied to materials and objects using various criteria:

  • touch, finish, colour, accessories and layout;
  • sounds and movements made when a product is handled;
  • smell;
  • temperature and heat diffusion;
  • luminosity.

Sensory design aims to establish an overall diagnosis of the sensory perceptions of a product, and define appropriate means to design or redesign it on that basis. It involves an observation of the diverse and varying situations in which a given product or object is used in order to measure the users' overall opinion of the product, its positive and negative aspects in terms of tactility, appearance, sound and so on.

In the transport sphere, these two branches of sensory analysis translate into sometimes minor enhancements to the design for a vehicle interior, information system, or station environment to smooth some of the rougher edges of the travel experience.

This is literally the case with the 'warm to the touch' grab handles that are being developed for Alstom: RCP's designers are looking to create a material finish intended to be neither too slippery not too rough, and offered users a 'dry touch'. A 'dry' finish feels more hygienic than a warm and greasy touch, providing a psychological comfort to the user. The traditional greasy feel brings an association with bacteria, RCP believes.


Further research conducted by RCP for Alstom has yielded seat moquette with built-in odour-release when touched or impacted. RCP has sought to reconcile the fact that humans have a very individual perception of odour. It is difficult to define a 'nice smell', and even if it were possible to reach a universal consensus on a 'nice smell', concealing bad odours with different ones may not be the appropriate reaction.

Instead, RCP is seeking to create fabrics that have the ability either to absorb odours or to maintain as neutral an ambience as possible via faint odour release. Such techniques may, it is hoped, preserve the sense of a vehicle's 'newness' for longer, for example.

RCP is also researching door alarms with less discordant tones, using accelerating or ascending chimes to indicate door closure, or an audible mimicking of the mechanical sound of closing doors.

Sensory satisfaction could yet prove a small but valuable part of the battle to persuade urban travellers to leave their cars at home in an era when many motorists are wary of leaving the individually-tailored cocoon of the private car.

  • CAPTION: An impression of the proposed interior for the Angers cars. Alstom is working with RCP to take vehicle design beyond livery and seat moquette choices to encompass the wider sensory environment
  • CAPTION: RCP uses these 'Planches tendences' to present an range of images and materials to clients in an effort to gain a better understanding of design job. This collage shows a series of images of Le Mans and its residents, and helped to shape the Citadis cars for the city