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Scents and Sensibility

Without leaving your desk, you’ll soon be able to smell the roses. Using DigiScents‘ iSmell, ”a personal scent synthesizer,“ now in beta testing, you’ll be able to sniff the aroma of, say, fresh chocolate, while you work the Net. Or invent your own scents and add them to e-mails or a short story.

iSmell plugs into your computer just like a speaker or printer. Its digital scents are touted as making 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 [through] digital control. It’s another example of the opportunities for democratization through technology.“

The mere suggestion of digital smell sounds crazy. But every good idea does -- at first. Like adding video to music and making MTV. 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 landscape as pictures, music and robo-voices.

DigiScents isn‘t the only company working to digitize smells, though it may have the best plan for persuading consumers to shell out a still unnamed number of bucks for aromas. Two years ago, Adobe released its Net sniffer, Odorshop, to little fanfare. RealaAroma’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.

But 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, and consumers might find that intrusive. ”People are wary of unsolicited intrusion of odors, pleasant and unpleasant, in their lives,“ says Dr. Graham A. Bell, director of the Centre for Research at the University of New South Wales, Australia. ”The shopping mall of the future may draw in customers by proclaiming, ’No manipulative odors permitted on these premises!‘“

For technology lovers, however, adding smell to the array of sensory riches online may be a natural. Game developers will probably 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 stench of burning rubber rises.

Sex sites won’t be far behind. Using digital scents, you‘ll be able to make your own perfumes, candles and lotions. You’ll even be able to e-mail your 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.

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. That dream may be hard to realize technically, however.

”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. 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, you can pop 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? People ”can associate, say, coffee with a start-up smell,“ Smith says, ”and the ocean or a fireplace when they shut down.“

There are other noncommercial ideas for digital scents. Bell has been developing a ”chemical camera“ that could sniff out harmful chemicals or the presence of disease in a patient.

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.

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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