• Tech

Dollars and Scents

3 minute read
Katy Steinmetz

ADS for the 1960 chase film Scent of Mystery promised a revolutionary experience. As moviegoers watched Peter Lorre drive around Spain, wafts of roses and perfume would be pumped out of plastic tubes hidden under each seat. First talkies, now smellies! But the scent system proved glitchy, and the concept flopped. Now, a half-century later, analysts predict that the time for fragrant films may finally be ripe. The concept is part of a new wave of ideas and products that are bringing scent into the digital age.

Our electronic devices can listen, talk and respond to our touch, but getting them to smell is trickier. That’s because it’s hard to fool the nose and even harder to replicate what it can do. But entrepreneurs and researchers are trying to crack smell’s code, developing aromatic ways to enhance what we watch, what we buy, how we communicate and potentially even how we monitor our health. “The best is yet to come,” says organic chemist George Preti, a specialist in human body odor. “We’re just getting into it.” Here’s a look at some of the odoriferous enterprises on the horizon.



At CJ Group’s “4-D” theaters, chairs have ticklers, machines ooze fog, and technicians can deploy any of about 1,000 scents that correspond to the action on the screen–like the odor of burning rubber for car-chase scenes. The technology gives consumers a can’t-get-it-at-home experience and gives theaters a way to upcharge. The South Korean company plans to have four U.S. locations by the end of 2013.


At the University of California at San Diego, engineering professor Sungho Jin is building “smell-o-vision” prototypes. His goal: a compact electronic TV accessory, like a set-top box, that would emit thousands of scents in tandem with onscreen action–like perfume samples during Chanel commercials. One drawback: scent cartridges would have to be manually replaced.


The Japanese company ChatPerf is trying to add scents to texts. Its $10 device plugs into a phone’s audio jack and holds $3 disposable scent-emitting cartridges. A message sent through the company’s app can trigger the device to release a selected odor like cinnamon or peppermint. CEO Koki Tsubouchi says the product will hit Japanese stores in July with 20 aroma options.


Firms like ScentAir use smell in interactive promotions, including a touchscreen display for McCormick that asked customers to “guess that spice.” Scent marketers also try to guide consumer behavior–for instance, by releasing cookie aromas during an opera intermission to drive concession sales. The industry has grown as technology has allowed for more customized and subtle ways to use scents.



San Francisco start-up Adamant Technologies is building smart-phone accessories that can interpret odors. CEO Sam Khamis says the first generation, which can detect bad breath and gauge blood-alcohol levels, should be out next year. His ultimate goal is to turn phones into personal health monitors by using cues in our breath to determine metabolic rates, insulin levels and biomarkers for disease.

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