You push a button. A perfectly formed fresh rose materializes and levitates in front of your eyes. Its petals look silky and a gentle dew sits on its leaves. You reach out to touch it. It’s tangible. The petals are soft, the dew is cold, the thorns are sharp. You lean forward and sniff. It smells exactly as it should. The sweet aroma of a rose when it has flowered fully and reached its peak, and a hint of lingering chlorophyll, the kind of scent that seeps into your skin when you’ve been picking flowers by hand.
Seems like an extremely futuristic scenario, right?
Smell doesn’t operate quite like the other senses. The sensation of smell is produced by the olfactory bulb, a little organ that sits at the front of our brain. Sight and sound are senses that function through the measurement of frequency, a medium we have been able to reproduce for hundreds of years. The processes of smell and taste, however, are the stimulation of special nerve cells by very specific combinations of molecules in the world around us. This is perhaps why the digitization of the latter has been slower to develop in the technological world, but the pace is beginning to quicken.
Digital Scent is a difficult concept to define. Prior to my investigation on this subject, my perception of digital scent was largely informed by the ‘Smell Master 9000’ in the 1994 film, Richie Rich, starring Macaulay Culkin. Through my research, I learned first that this was a remarkably prescient film and second that there are essentially two understandings of the phrase ‘digital scent’.
The first understanding - the digitization of the processes of smelling and emitting smells - was the reason I wanted to write about this subject in the first place. The premise of this is that the components of a smell be deconstructed and that this combination is formed identically elsewhere. As of yet, this has not been seamlessly achieved. I met with Saskia Wilson-Brown, the founder of the Institute of Art and Olfaction to ask her opinion on the current explorations into this realm. She explained that scents are formed from very particular combinations of molecules. Therefore, in order to deconstruct and replicate a smell accurately, one would need a library of hundreds (if not thousands) of molecular components. This would mean that any of the hardware capable of housing these libraries would be enormous and cost prohibitive, hence why advancement in this aspect of digitizing scent has been slow.
The second understanding of Digital Scent is more straightforward. This is when a selection of aromas is combined in order to create a scent soundtrack or landscape of sorts. This effect has been produced successfully through products such as Cyrano and the oPhone DUO. These devices are essentially sophisticated smell modems with the ability to blend multiple odors in order to re-create the scent of foods, places and even specific experiences (Cyrano offers ‘Cancun Stroll’ as an option, which combines the scents of guava, coconut and suntan lotion among others).
These scent soundtrack technologies have inevitably found their way into the world of VR. Hoping to better understand how digital scents of are being integrated into these experiences. I met with Matthias B. Tabbert of International Flavors and Fragrances. IFF provides the scent soundtrack for VR experience Tree and is currently providing the flavors and fragrances for the Museum of Ice Cream which is running for three sold out months in LA this summer. But the cherry on top for Matthias was that the Museum of Ice Cream designed a room around his personal favorite - Blueberry French Toast. IFF also developed the scents behind every exhibit at Le Grand Musée du Parfum in Paris, the first museum in the world to focus solely on scent and the perfumers artistic intentions.
The Institute of Art and Olfaction has a progressive and ongoing vision for the uses of its products, they are “…fielding a lot of proposals and projects that relate to utilizing scent to manipulate how people walk through a space, interact with a product, experience an art work or - of course - time-based media”. They are adamant to prove that smell does and should play an integral part in the telling of a story. Scent Communications in Germany provides the hardware to transmit the scent in Tree. The ScentController is specifically designed for multimedia installations and to work in tandem with traditional storytelling methods. Robert Mueller-Gruenow, the owner of the company, is currently developing this for more utilizable personal applications in the near future, they are “…working on new micro scent systems that allow the integration of multiple scents into something like Oculus Rift or a smart phone”. We can only deduce from this that the future of many industries such as advertising, film and entertainment is going to radically change with this advancement.
Although it is a slow process, these digital scent technologies are developing alongside innovative haptic devices such as the Teslasuit, VR and touchable holograms. This means that we may be giving a faraway friend a virtual hug sooner than we think, and recognizing their perfume. Digitizing smells may seem strange to some people, but when we take into account how quickly AR has become mainstream through games such as Pokemon Go, it’s only a matter of time before the smell of a friends home-cooked dinner wafting through our phones from Instagram is commonplace.