Can digital scents go primetime?

By Dennis Draeger, Aiglatson Foresight Research

Various scent technologies have been introduced several times to the consumer electronics market with promises of deeper immersion in virtual experiences, but none of the gadgets have shown much success. Recent research points to the eventual development of new devices that could make a deeper impact on the mainstream market with potential for improving the health of end users and optimizing electronic marketing. Is digital scent technology ready for primetime?


The most commonly known effect of scent is probably for stimulating memory, and studies have indicated that aromatherapy can significantly aid the treatment of dementia patients. In fact, the olfactory nerve is very close to the areas of the brain both for emotions and memories which also makes it a very powerful target for advertisers. Besides the health benefits, incorporating scent into digital interactions—whether on TV, the internet, or phones—would help consumers remember those interactions thereby enhancing marketing and brand loyalty.

What is changing?

Brick and mortar stores (e.g. supermarkets, bookstores, clothing shops) often use scent to varying degrees to influence their customers. Recently, an experiment in two Belgium bookstores showed that pumping the scent of chocolate in the air increased sales by 22 percent In the mystery, history, and crime sections while sales in the cooking and romance genres spiked by 40 percent compared to when the scent was not in the air. If similar results could be transferred to online stores and brands or through TV advertising, the potential for marketing would be huge.

This year, Japanese researchers showed that their scent system, which uses gels can cause a TV to emit a smell from a particular place on the screen. So, KFC’s chicken smell could be emitted specifically from the fried chicken on the TV screen even as it moves, but the gels only allow one scent per TV unless someone switches out the gels. However, the system is perfect for enhancing NTT’s “aroma-emitting digital signage” which has been available since 2008 in high traffic areas such as subway stations, shopping malls, etc.

Digital scent research and devices have popped up every year since the late nineties—when the infamous iSmell was being hyped—that claim they will bring scents to consumer electronics to increase digital immersion. The users could smell the stink of a car’s exhaust during a chase scene, or the device could spray the scent of spearmint when the user appears drowsy. However, all of these gadgets have failed to reach a mainstream audience, and the potential for marketers to communicate scent to consumers in less public, more personal locations remains elusive.

Currently, a Japanese company is developing an accessory, Chat Perf, for the iPhone that sprays a fragrance, and the app would allow friends to message the accessory to spray its scent. However, Chat Perf can only hold one scent tank at a time, and users would have to switch out the tanks holding its scented oil any time they wanted a different fragrance. Are consumers willing to collect several small tanks just for the purpose of smelling a limited range of fragrances from their mobile devices?

In 2011, American and Korean researchers developed a proof of concept for a device small enough to fit on the back of a TV that could emit a range of thousands of different odours. Before such a device can be expected to succeed however, the scent tech needs greater consumer interest. Magazine ads have advertised colas with scented pages, and even a hit TV show in the States has included pages in magazines for viewers to scratch and sniff during key moments in an episode. However for consumers to care about smelling a video, they will need something more user friendly to attract their continued interest.

Amy Radcliffe has an idea that could potentially build that consumer interest. She has designed a prototype scent “camera” that can capture a scent to be mailed to a laboratory and developed—much like film used to be—into a memory vial of scented liquid. With this scent “camera,” users could collect their own smells much like they do with snapshots and explore the sense of smell in a less ephemeral and more unique manner.

Once scents and their associated memories can be revisited so easily, people might become more sensitive to their own sense of smell and therefore more interested in exploring digital scents. With Radcliffe’s ideas, a print out of the scent’s formula would accompany the memory vial which would allow the user to reorder the scent, and it also might be shared with someone else who would remember the scent. Users might also feel the need to share certain scents that affect them just like people currently share certain songs, photos, or videos for the same reason. Users would finally have a personal reason to populate their social media and other communications with smelly content. If such a device were developed beyond the prototype, it would likely only appeal to a niche market, but if marketed effectively, it could create a user base that could synergize with smelly TVs, computers, and phones to broaden the appeal of full sensory immersion and marketing.

Why is this important?

Full digital immersion requires the sense of smell. Otherwise, virtual interactions, no matter how realistic, will always be sterile and unconvincing. Besides complimenting the slowly emerging virtual reality technology, digital scent technology could enhance advertisements and manipulate consumer emotions toward (or away from) a brand.

Besides the business case, scent technology could benefit its users in a practical and potentially profound way by improving the health and emotional wellbeing of its users. The full effect of smells on the human condition is still under-researched, but some of the benefits of aromatherapy that scientists have already validated include improving the management of anxiety, stress, insomnia, nausea, dementia, indigestion and headaches. Smells also affect our moods and scent technology could help users maintain a more stable and elevated mood. With an aroma industry already thriving—through perfumes, deodorants, scented candles, plugins, etc.—the business of the nose is set to expand if only the right device can pique consumer interest.

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One thought on “Can digital scents go primetime?

  1. Pingback: Synesthesia: Multisensory experiences for a multisensory world – American Alliance of Museums

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