Scents and Sensibility

Smells Are Ready for Their Online Debut—But Is the World Ready for Them?

Scent is subtle, after all. The olfactory system can distinguish thousands of odors that travel from receptors in the nose to the brain. The new iSmell will come with 128 primary scents that can be combined in recipes for the aroma of everything from fruit to mildew. When the chemicals run low, just put in a fresh cartridge the same way you'd replace a cartridge of printer's ink.

Smith thinks digital smell can become a part of routine life. Why should we have only beeps and written messages when our computers boot up or turn off? Why not add scents? People "can associate, say, coffee with a start-up smell," Smith says, "and the ocean or a fireplace when they shut down."

Digital scents will have uses outside the domain of commerce.

Bell has been developing a "chemical camera" that could sniff out harmful chemicals or the presence of disease in a patient. He says the goal is to detect "loose molecules" that may not have a smell.

And then there's the creation of multisensory immersive environments for their own sake. Smith calls the art of using smell "scentography," and expects aroma to be used even as a scent track to add emotional resonance to films. Since smell is so closely linked to memory, he argues, aromas mixed with sound and images will create virtual worlds complete with memories as real as, well, memories.

But first we'll have to be taught to distinguish odors as elements of a work of art, the way we learned to distinguish "sound art" from music. Industrial noise once sounded like nothing, literally nothing. Over time, we learned to listen to ambient noise as elements of sound sculpture, changing what had been perceived as merely context into primary content. Scent may one day speak to us that clearly.

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