“Today we’re going to show you the world’s first olfactive message.”
Harvard professor David Edwards is sitting on the back of a couch at Le Laboratoire, the art and design studio he opened in Paris seven years ago. His casual perch and thick-rimmed glasses make him look more student than teacher, but the thicket of grey in his stubble gives him away.
“So here I have an Android phone and we have an application that’s called oNotes,” he says to a group of twenty-somethings in cardigans. “Amy, which coffee would you like to smell?”
Amy Yin, a Harvard student and Edwards’ collaborator, orders espresso. Edwards taps his phone and Yin lifts a small white box to her nose. Two, maybe three seconds pass before she shoots her arm into the air. “I got it!” Yin passes the box to the man next to her. He sniffs. “Yeah, it’s good.” Pass. Sniff. “Oh wow, it’s strong.” Pass. Sniff. “Oh delicious.”
The device in her hand is the oPhone, which isn’t a phone at all. It’s a finger-sized plastic cylinder that encases four oChips, each holding four distinct odours captured in wax. “Like ink cartridges for aroma,” Edwards says. Those 16 aromas, called oNotes, are the handiwork of an aroma expert who reduced a variety of scents down to their component parts, creating a periodic table of smells. The first oPhones will be able to piece those elements together into hundreds of aromas. Future versions will produce thousands, Edwards says. When the oPhone goes on sale later this year, users will be able to send those scents via a mobile app, which will also host a social network enabling users to share personalised aromas. Think of it as an Instagram for smells.
“There’s something unique in our perception of aroma, in what it does to us psychologically, that’s part of being alive,” Edwards tells me. He hopes to harness that power, allowing individuals and businesses to utilise and deploy scents across geographic boundaries in much the way telephones did for speech and television for images. Such technology, he expects, will foster a “sophisticated aromatic vocabulary” that makes communicating with odours as natural as using verbal language.
Say you want to message a co-worker to duck out to lunch. Instead of gchatting “Wanna make a run for the border?” you might send a whiff of a seasoned ground beef followed by a mild bouquet of chalky Pepto Bismol. Imagine a Cinnabon commercial consisting of 28 seconds of dead air accompanied only by the distinct smell of its doughy sugar bombs, followed by the devastating tagline “You know you want it …” Old Spice could reveal what the hell Matterhorn body wash smells like, right after subjecting you to the odours it’s meant to wash away. You could include personalised scents with your online dating profiles, sniff out favourite new coffees when shopping online.
The bacon-scent alarm clock was just the beginning.
Professor Edwards is merely the latest in a long line of inventors and entrepreneurs who’ve sniffed around for the holy grail of olfactive technology: devices that elevate the sense of smell to the same lofty perch as sight and sound. After more than a century of rosy starts and rotten flops, Edwards thinks he’s solved the puzzle. And he’s not alone.
A slew of innovators around the world are exploiting mobile technology and inexpensive hardware in the race to revolutionise the science of scent. The Japanese company ChatPerf already has its Scentee on the market. The bulb-shaped device plugs into a smartphone’s audio jack and emits a single aroma (either rose, rosemary, lavender, coffee or strawberry) on-demand or as a notification. Also in Japan, a group of university scientists developed a TV with four small fans in each corner, allowing users to experience localised scents “as if an odor source had been placed on the screen.” In Europe, the Spanish company Olorama is marketing a Wi-Fi-enabled device to theatres, hotels and events agencies that want to “bring aromas to the audiovisual world,” and a French doctor has started the Digital Olfaction Society, which held its first conference last year.
The gaming sector, always eager to make the user experience more immersive, is rife with devices that aim to add scent to zombie murder. Most notable are the ScentScape and Game Skunk, which blast aromas synced with on-screen action. Even Microsoft flirted with putting an aroma-emitting device into the Xbox One controller.
Next up: bringing scent to wearable virtual reality systems that already provide immersive visual and audio experiences in the art, therapy and gaming fields.
Dollars and Scents
Naturally, marketers are especially eager to deploy the new technology. In 2012 Dunkin Doughnuts created a campaign in Seoul that filled city buses with a coffee aroma every time a Dunkin ad played on the loudspeaker. Sales at locations near city bus routes spiked 29%. In December of last year Pop Secret introduced the Pop Dongle, a popcorn-shaped device that plugs into an iPhone’s audio jack and oozes a buttery bouquet when playing a Pop Secret-branded game. And of course there’s the aforementioned Oscar Meyer bacon app.
Research has consistently shown that scent increases sales, and yet smell remains the most overlooked and underutilized sense. Our visual culture treats odor as a taboo, meant to be scrubbed away or covered up rather than enjoyed for its emotional power. That’s probably got something to do with our inability to control it. We can turn off sights and sounds, but controlling odours isn’t as easy. Aromas seep into our noses whether we like them or not, and quickly, into our brains. They conjure visceral memories, tapping our subconscious in unpredictable ways.
“Smell is very closely tied to emotion,” says Stuart Firestein, head of the Department of Biological Sciences at Columbia. “And the emotions aren’t always good.” That could explain our aversion to odor, which is just as likely to make us feel disgust as it is to conjure hidden memories of sharing dessert with an aunt, as they did for Marcel Proust in “Remembrance of Things Past.” “The thing to recognise is that the memories are always of an emotional type,” Firestein says. “You don’t smell something and remember an equation.”
There’s a biological explanation for that, says scent scientist Avery Gilbert, author of “What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life.” “The olfactory nerves in your nose hit an area in the brain called the amygdala. It’s an emotional center of the limbic system, so you get a very fast read on whether you’re liking something before you can even think about it,” he says. That reaction is a gut-level response that can be universal (we all like floral scents), culturally conditioned (only Swedes like canned fermented herring), or tied to a personal memory.
It’s that untapped power, along with odor’s complete absence from our technological lives, that makes scent technology so appealing. Every person with a functioning nose is a potential customer, and the first innovator who gets this idea right stands to both make a mint and cement a legacy.
Santa Clara Co. Library
Hans Laube and Mike Todd, Jr. with the Smell-o-Vision machine.
Smell-Tech: A History
If scent can claim an Alexander Graham Bell of its own, the honour would have to go to Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, a film industry pioneer who made his name opening Radio City Music Hall and the eponymous Roxy Theatre in Times Square. In 1909, Rothafel opened his first theatre in Forest City, Penn., and he set out to goose ticket sales with a gimmick. He dipped streamers in rose oil before a screening of the Pasadena Rose Festival and let fans blow them about the theatre. He later recalled, “One young lady stopped me on going out and said: ‘Why, Mr. Rothafel, those rose pictures look so natural I honestly thought I could smell the perfume of the rose.'”
Over the next couple decades, theatre owners around the country mimicked Rothafel, typically dispersing odours through ventilation systems. Credit for the first technological advancement in the field belongs to the unnamed inventor whose aroma dispersal system found a brief home at Times Square’s Rialto Theatre in 1933. It was supposed to waft odours into the auditorium and suck them back out, clearing the air for the next scent. But it didn’t work as planned, leaving the theatre air heavy with a noxious cocktail of bacon and honey-suckle. New methods emerged, including shooting aromas through air conditioner ducts with compressed air. But each failed for the same reason: Getting the aromas in was easy, taking them out was hard.
“The chemicals themselves just stay around. They get into your clothes, it’s hard to get rid of them and everything just smells like a cosmetics department,” Firestein says, explaining what happens when new fragrances are introduced on top of old. “It’s an assault.”
Swiss entrepreneur Hans Laube had a plan to fix that. At the 1940 World’s Fair, Laube premiered his system for scenting movies, which piped odours to each seat. To show off his invention, Laube made a 35-minute film accompanied by lilac, cedar, honey, sausage, rose, and tar. The audience thought it stank. “The constant bombardment upon the nose was rather strong stuff … and we felt relieved on getting out in the fresh air again,” an attendee of that first screening wrote in a 1940 issue of Business Screen Magazine.
It was a tough blow for Laube, but he didn’t give up. After two decades of improving his system, his big break came when a Hollywood producer hatched a plan to make a movie specifically for Laube’s recently-patented technology, which the producer dubbed Smell-O-Vision. Laube installed a mile of tubing in Chicago’s Cinestage Theatre. At the end of those tubes was a “smell brain” that controlled a series of perfume-filled vials arranged on a reel. The device, described in a 1960 issue of American Cinematographer as looking like “something out of an atomic plant,” used needles to bring small amounts of the proper fragrance to a fan, which blew scented air through the tubing to each seat. Laube’s device, as he imagined it, was more than a nose speaker — it was a way to add depth and emotion to a film. His patent application hints at his ambition to elevate the lowly sense of smell to something practically Oscar-worthy: “In the operation of my novel odor emitting apparatus, the keying of the type of odours and the quantity of odours emission to the particular scene is itself an art.”
With Laube’s system a few weeks from its unveiling, a competitor swooped in with his own smellie. In December 1959, movie man Walter Reade, Jr. premiered “Behind the Great Wall,” a documentary on Communist China, with a scent track encoded onto the movie reel, a technology called Aromarama. The track signaled a device that shot fragrances through the theatre’s air conditioning system. It quickly sucked the air back, removing odours with a device called the Statronic, whose electrically-charged surfaces attracted scented air particles.
Critics hated it, complaining about odours that blended together, uneven distribution throughout the theatre and an overall sense that everything they were smelling was synthetic. As a Time writer put it, “A beautiful old pine grove in Peking, for instance, smells rather like a subway rest room on disinfectant day.”
The bad press for Aromarama threatened to spoil Smell-O-Vision’s premiere with “Scent of Mystery,” the film Todd, Jr. produced to showcase the system. As posters appeared hyping the film — “First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927)! Now they smell!” — the press already seemed to have soured on the idea. And sure enough, “Scent of Mystery” flopped. As Variety reported, “A number of balcony smellers said the aroma reached them a few seconds after the action on the screen. Other balcony dwellers said they heard a hissing sound that tipped off the arrival of a smell.” Even though the problems were soon addressed, Smell-O-Vision was doomed.
It would take two decades before John Waters tried to revive the smellie with a new technological approach. Thanks to printing giant 3M, which discovered that the microencapsulation process used on carbon paper also worked with scented oils, scratch-and-sniff products were all the rage in the early ’80s. Waters used the technology to show his movie “Polyester” in what he called Odorama. Audience members were given scratch-and-sniff cards upon entering the theatre, and on-screen cues told them when to scratch away and inhale. The odours included glue, pizza, gasoline, and poop. As Waters would later boast, “I actually got the audience to pay to smell shit!”
The scratch-and-sniff approach was employed again for 2003’s “Rugrats Go Wild” and 2011’s “Spy Kids 4D.” The indiscriminate blasting of scents through air vents hasn’t fallen completely out of favour either. For Hong Kong screenings of the 2001 Chinese film “Lavender,” production company Golden Harvest imported machines to fill theatres with scents of lavender, jasmine and rose.
German inventor Stefan Reutz approached the problem of odorizing films with the Sniffman, a Walkman-like device that hung around a movie-goer’s neck. Radio signals told the Sniffman to spritz fragrance upward. Visionary though he was, Reutz showed less aptitude for marketing, telling the Daily Mirror in 2001, “Imagine it in a film like Jurassic Park. where dinosaur dung would really let you get creative.”
Failing The Sniff Test
What ensured the Sniffman’s demise wasn’t Reutz’s promise of triceratops turds, though, but his reliance on radio technology. By 2000, sniffable tech startups were focusing on dynamic, adaptable devices that communicated over the internet, with Oakland-based company DigiScents leading the charge. Founded by Joel Bellenson and Dexster Smith, veterans of the biotech industry who developed gene-sequencing software in the early ’90s, DigiScents developed the iSmell — perhaps not the most appealing name — in 1999 with a goal of changing the way we surfed. “It was like a scent speaker,” Smith tells Business Insider. “The attraction to the consumer would be an incredibly immersive and personal experience. If they wanted to have their own scent track for their favourite movie or their favourite music video, they could.”
The iSmell looked like a shark fin in the classic metallic silver and blue of so many peripheral devices designed in the ’90s. The shell concealed a “scent cartridge” of 128 odours in oil form. When triggered by the computer, it heated a drop of oil and a small fan dispersed the scent noseward.
Buzz was big for the iSmell. New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes tried the device and announced, “I have been to the future and it smells.” A fawning Wired article ended with the prediction that, “As cyberspace matures into a totally immersive experience, I’m betting it will turn out to be fully odor-enabled.” Online sweets shop eCandy.com signed up to scent-enable its website. Kraft was interested in using the iSmell to let people design their own Kool-Aid flavours. Five thousand video game developers signed up to integrate it.
In summer 2000, Bellenson told the Philadelphia Enquirer, “Our goal is to achieve ubiquity.”
A year later, DigiScents was dead. After burning through $US20 million, half of which came from Hong Kong-based investment firm Pacific Century CyberWorks, the company failed to raise the cash it needed to continue and laid off 70 employees in April 2001. “We fell victim to the dot com collapse,” Smith says.
As DigiScents shut down, a slew of other scent-obsessed entrepreneurs entered the market with variations on the same basic idea: software communicates with hardware containing scented ingredients that are mixed and dispersed to users. AromaJet used 16 ingredients to send fragrances over the internet with its IPsmell technology. The Japanese program Kaori Web allowed netizens, as they were called in 2001, to simultaneously watch and smell a cooking demonstration. Osmooze linked up with email programs and allowed users to assign a scent notification to specific contacts. Procter & Gamble even got in on the act with Scentstories, a Febreze-branded machine that played CDs of smells. Shania Twain curated a disc called “Wishes of Spring.”
In 2005, the Scent Dome arrived to take up the smell-tech baton. Developed by Ellwood Ivey, the Scent Dome was a peripheral device that held a scent cartridge loaded with 20 different scented oils. When the USB-connected computer told the dome to start cooking, it heated small amounts of oil and blew out the fragrance. Before long, Ivey was on “Good Morning America” and CNN pushing the $US369 product.
A Whiff of the Future
Even with Diane Sawyer’s endorsement — “It reeeeally smells like apple here,” she said on GMA — and interest from the education and gaming sectors, the Scent Dome didn’t make it, which is no surprise considering the fate of so many similar products. Over the years, technologists have struggled with problems that include inauthentic odours, an unnatural user experience and a general perception that this is a topic more fit for pranks than serious R&D. The biggest difficulty though may be convincing consumers that digital fragrance is actually a desirable innovation. “The sense of smell is kind of a close and personal thing,” notes Columbia professor Firestein, who served on DigiScents’ scientific advisory board. “It’s not clear whether people want that kind of invasion of their private space.”
Ivey sees the issue as more of a chicken and egg problem. “There has not been a big enough effort by any of the pioneers in this field to develop the hardware for the marketplace so that the software folks can develop their various applications,” he notes.
“The market is real,” Smith of DigiScents assures me. He emphasises that in the years since the iSmell and Scent Dome, it’s become easier to manufacture and sell hardware. Fundraising is just a KickStarter account away. Streaming video, which he and Bellenson were predicting in 1999, is everywhere. And perhaps most important, corporate America is fully on board. “With scent-related products, the scale of business done in that world is massive. Whether it’s perfume, household products, food, each of these realms is a significant business.”
And perhaps that’s what keeps a certain stripe of innovator chasing this particular unicorn. Yes, they want to start a sensory revolution and they set lofty, theoretical goals like “adding another dimension to communication.” But in talking to those involved in trying to move odours from the periphery of our sensory experience, you hear a common theme: There’s a lot of money to be made.
Dexster Smith saw the profits in strategic relationships with big food. Ellwood Ivey planned to sell scores of educational products. Author Avery Gilbert, who was a part of the early DigiScents team, is a big believer in scent marketing. And David Edwards, who’s in the best position at this point to turn these visions of riches into actual revenues, predicts that wide adoption oChips will finally crack open the market.
“We’re talking to lots of different industries, from internet to travel to food and beverage,” he says. “We’re interested in empowering them to make devices that integrate oChips into their service.” He see clothes and furniture with built-in, odor-emitting oChips. He imagines the scent of fresh bread wafting from our oChip-equipped smartphones as we walk past a bakery. He sees a total “reawakening of the aromatic world that we all lived in 300 years ago.” That means carrying scent technology beyond the movie theatre and making it a part of our daily experience.
History suggests it’s another longshot, but just like so many dreamers before him, Professor Edwards is focused on the future. He can almost smell it.
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