Scents and Sensibility

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

Digital scents will make plenty of dollars if DigiScents has its way.

Sitting right at your desk, you’ll soon be able to smell the roses—or baking bagels or honey-roasted nuts or crowded subway platforms—using DigiScents’ new iSmell, "a personal scent synthesizer." Now in beta testing, iSmell is a peripheral device you plug into a computer the same way you plug in speakers and printers. If you visited a Web site offering a whiff of fresh chocolate cake, for example, iSmell could pull down the code it needs to mix chemicals in just the right way and then release the designer aroma while you work on the Net. Or you could invent your own scents and add them to e-mails or a short story.

DigiScents' wafting digital scents may make every media experience immersive and wraparound, more real than reality. Scents work for perfume advertising in magazines, says DigiScents president Dexster Smith, and they'll certainly work when software re-creates them. "What we're about is allowing people to have control or mastery and a heightened awareness of smell," Smith says. "It's a very powerful part of us, and it has been in the hands of a very select few. This is a revolution of the senses, and we are bringing smell to the everyday person via digital control. It's another example of the opportunities for democratization through technology."

photo: Limbert Fabian

The mere suggestion of digital smell sounds crazy. But every good idea does—at first. Like adding video to music and making MTV. Like downloading Bombay footage from satellites and making a New York newscast. Former Motorola CEO Robert Galvin once observed that each breakthrough idea during his tenure began its life as a minority opinion. At first, the new ideas couldn't even get heard. Then they were ridiculed, and the people who birthed them were attacked. Finally, everyone agreed they'd believed in the ideas all along.

Perhaps interlacing scents will become as much a part of the digital realm as pictures, music, and robo-voices.

DigiScents isn't the only company working to digitize smells, though it may have the best plan for convincing consumers that shelling out a still unnamed number of bucks for aromas is a smart idea. Two years ago, Adobe released its Net sniffer, Odorshop, and received little fanfare. RealAroma's Web site (realaroma.com) hypes a smell box that uses something called "Real Aroma Text Markup Language" and can run on a modem as slow as 14.4K. Macintosh CEO Steve Jobs has announced he wants future generations of his company's machines to be able to handle odors, just as they're now equipped to play CDs.

What separates DigiScents from the pack is its commitment to putting smells on the Net. The company has joined forces with RealNetworks, whose RealPlayer turned online tunes from a vague concept to a near essential for savvy surfers. Taking a cue from media portals, DigiScents promises to launch a world of odors at Snortal.com. Finally, you'll have something to whiff out there.

Mainstream consumers may not share Smith's enthusiasm for digitized smells. Just as store owners use the right blend of soft rock to make shoppers reach for their wallets, advertisers will use scents to promote products from cognac to perfume to leather jackets. "Bringing scent to everything may not be everyone's cup of tea," says Dr. Graham A. Bell, director of the Centre for ChemoSensory Research at the University of New South Wales, Australia. "People are wary of the unsolicited intrusion of odors, pleasant and unpleasant, in their lives. The shopping mall of the future may draw in customers by proclaiming, 'No manipulative odors are permitted on these premises!' "

But for people who love technology, adding smell to the array of sensory riches is a natural.

Game developers may be first to make use of scents. Imagine inching your way through a cold basement as the smell of mold seeps through the damp brick, or rounding the corner of the track as tires squeal and the burning rubber stinks. Like the pulsing music in Jaws that made us anticipate the shark, scents will serve as clues or cause fear and foreboding in haunted houses.

Sex sites won't be far behind. Using digital scents, we'll make our own perfumes, candles, and lotions. We can even e-mail our own musk. Imagine being lost in digital sex with a chat-partner or wandering an online adult channel when pheromones flare your nostrils and make your heart race.

Scent detonates the power of suggestion, unlocks buried memories, and stampedes lust. Smells fire primordial urges to run, fight, or make love. Smith envisions the day when a standard greeting card blossoms with the scent of roses, or when aromatherapy threaded through meditative music and archetypal images transports a viewer into an altered state.

Some question whether that dream is suited for mass consumption. "There are difficult hurdles ahead with regard to digitizing smells and replaying them in the comfort of your home," says Bell. "The replay device must produce smells faithfully. Technically, this is very difficult, as most odors we encounter in everyday life are composed of hundreds of components."

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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