Next on the 'virtual' horizon: scents

An early look at technology that will let you sniff products before you buy

Next time you sit in front of a computer to order roses, you may be able to smell them.

A handful of inventors and start-up companies are working on computer-aided devices that try to mimic a multitude of scents including those of roses, cotton candy, and burning rubber.

One company, TriSenx (www.trisenx.com), recently unveiled a device that resembles a computer mouse. The device, and the software that comes with it, sells for $269 and reproduces 20 basic scents that can be mixed to create hundreds of others.

Another company, Digiscents (www.digiscents.com), has designed a gizmo dubbed iSmell that looks like a toy sailboat. It contains a pallet of 128 basic smells that can create thousands of scents - everything from mint toothpaste to Brie cheese. The iSmell is due out in August and is expected to cost about $200.

Both devices plug into a computer and come with a "scent cartridge" that contains a range of oil-based fragrances that can be triggered with a mouse click. The scent travels about a foot and fades in a few seconds.

Scent developers say some smells produced are more accurate than others. Peppermints, fruits, and flowers are easier to replicate than beef stroganoff, fresh baked cookies, or different brands of chocolate or perfume.

"I think it's always a matter of how richly you want to replicate smell," says Joel Lloyd Bellenson, co-founder of the Oakland, Calif.-based DigiScents. "Like with color or audio, you can do renditions ... with [more or] less richness."

The company is now encouraging Web retailers to send the "smell" of their products online to customers who use the iSmell device. The influence of smell can evoke moods, add another dimension to a multimedia experience, or help sell products, says Mr. Bellenson. For example, a travel site might want online consumers to smell suntan oil. Cooking sites could transmit the scent of fresh-baked bread or cookies.

The idea is also being sold to the entertainment industry. Video games could add the scent of burning rubber to make a car race seem more real. DVD movies could become scent-enabled too, enabling you to, for instance, smell the sea in "Titanic." Indeed, Hong Kong movie buffs may get the first sniff of a scented movie early next year. China-based Golden Harvest Pictures plans to synchronize odor blasts with the mood on screen for its production "Lavender."

"Smell and touch are the missing elements [in multimedia].... People are putting their money into having more engaging experiences," says Bellenson.

Yet some are skeptical whether a market for smell exists. For example, Smell-o-vision exposed viewers of the 1960 movie, "Scent of Mystery," to wafts of garlic, paint, and perfume. But the idea never took off.

"Whether it's wanted or not remains to be seen, it's an interesting idea but implementation is still up in the air," says Randy Souza of Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "If they keep the price point low enough and demonstrate applications for games or DVDs, it may catch on."

At the same time, researchers argue that online retailers, already strapped for funding, won't want to spend time and money reconfiguring their sites to offer smell.

"There probably are some small audiences for [online smell] out there, but ... It won't become mainstream anytime soon," says IDC media analyst Malcolm MacLachlan in Framingham, Mass. "It's a little bit too obscure. I don't want to smell fried food on an average day."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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