Formerly confined to cheesy 4-D movies and ill-fated projects such as Smell-O-Vision, new attention is being given to scent technology, now being explored as a peripheral for certain types of consumer products.
In a way, it seems like a natural progression of technology. I’ve written in the past about virtual reality and augmented reality and the ways that both look to deliver an immersive experience. As far as sensory stimuli go, smell has the potential to combine with visuals and audio to take VR a step further. After all, the sense of smell is most closely tied to memories and emotions.
Still, my first instinct is that we’re looking at a technology that will probably not prove especially useful or practical, but who am I to say? Let’s take a look at some of the possible applications for scents.
The British Science Festival, held recently in Brighton, England, hosted researchers demonstrating the ways in which this technology might soon impact lives. As previously mentioned, at the forefront of these demonstrations was VR technology, where worlds are defined by scent as well as sight and sound. In a demonstration, users were transported into a virtual rainforest, complete with the earthy smells one would expect from such a locale.
Outside of the potential to create immersive media experiences, scientists posited that smell technology can have practical applications as well. Another demonstration involved a scent module in a car programmed to release a spray of calming lavender every time its driver sped past the speed limit. And beyond the British Science Festival, Vapor Communications have devised another car-based aromatic device called the Cyrano, intended to create “playlists” of different smells.
However, even David Edwards, founder of Vapor Communications, noted that the Cyrano was essentially a “next-generation air freshener.” Indeed, Edwards’ expectations have been tempered by the failure of the oPhone, a device that allows users to tag photos with a selection of smells for consumption.
This technology carries inherent difficulties in both engineering and marketing. Unlike audio and video, creating a scent requires the projection of physical molecules, which must be distributed properly and with the right intensity to register for users. Additionally, selling these products can be difficult, with most users unconvinced that these devices have value to them. Part of this lies in the fact that smell, as a result of being tied to memory, is highly subjective. Though the scented candle business has thrived on tried-and-true smells such as sandalwood and fluffy towel, not everybody associates the same smells with the same things.
Others still have examined smell technology as a possible way for retailers to stimulate buying among consumers. University of Sussex researcher Emanuela Maggioni, a firm believer in the potential of this new tech, gave the example of the scent of coffee to push library patrons into purchasing coffee.
But is the current interest in smell technology enough of a catalyst for it to become mainstream later on. Edwards is convinced that olfactory illiteracy is what’s holding the public back from embracing this technology and that entrepreneurs like himself are the key to breaking the currently significant barriers to success. His research found that scents were frequently used in the same way as emojis when transmitted—metaphorical representations of common cultural concepts, such as using the scent of smoke when referring to a sultry individual. It remains to be seen what impact this technology will make—and whether something like the Smell-O-Vision will prove a harbinger of future trends.