Insights & Advice


What’s that smell?

Imagine opening your laptop or cell phone and catching a whiff of your favorite perfume. Scroll back to last summer’s Maine vacation photos and smell the pine forest at your campsite.  Digital scent technology can make that happen sooner than you think.

Digital scent technology, also called olfactory technology, is an engineering discipline that enables media, such as video games, movies, music and web pages, to sense, transmit, and receive scent-enabled content. Simply put, the day when you can smell through the internet is almost upon us.

The market is tiny right now, with less than $20 million in sales, but it is expected to grow substantially by the end of the decade. Surveys conducted by research firms such as Ericsson ConsumerLab, indicate that consumers expect that by 2030, internet devices will be able to interact with their sense of smell.

One big reason for the growth of digital scent is the fact that retailers, manufacturers, and advertisers already know that smell sells. That knowledge dates back centuries. Street peddlers in bazaars all over the world have used open-air grills to arouse hunger and entice consumers to sample their wares.

Today, companies as diverse as Burger King, Disney, Rolls Royce, and Nike have successfully used various scents and aromas in their brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants to improve traffic and generate additional sales. We remember that new car smell, for example, but may fail to realize how central that smell was in our decision to purchase a new car. But auto dealers understand that, as do supermarkets that spread the aroma of freshly baked bread through its aisles every day.

Credit for marrying our sense of smell to entertainment goes to a system called Smell-O-Vision back in the late 1950s. Aromas were released through hissing tanks or air condition vents in the movie theatre. It quickly flopped due to technology failures, but entrepreneurs kept trying and some were successful.

“Electronic noses,” developed in 1982, could detect and recognize odors and flavors. In 2013, a wireless system was developed with the object of incorporating scents into movies, as well as other audiovisual experiences, but rarely used. Digital technology borrowed from these wireless systems. Over the last decade, two branches of digital technology, one focused on the digital detection and analysis of different odors, and the other on the digital transmission and re-creation of smells, have melded together. We are now ready to begin interacting between our human senses and the internet.

How does it work? The technology uses hardware devices consisting of gas sensors, which aid in sensing and generating different types of smells. That in turn enables the transmission of odor over the internet. There are other technologies that are pursuing touch, sight, taste and sound. It has been dubbed the Internet of Senses.  To me, it’s just more examples of how new data applications are changing our lives now and in the future.

For now, sectors such as healthcare and military/defense are on the cutting edge of the digital scent scene. Clinical diagnosis, aromatherapy, and even the ability to detect cancer, are all areas where this technology is being employed by the medical community. The military and defense sectors are also using digital scent to detect and identify explosives in public and  combat areas.

There are a number of innovative start-up companies worldwide that are using a variety of scientific disciplines to mimic, recreate, and/or identify smells and scents. Organic chemistry, silicon engineering, machine learning, photonics, as well as data science and software engineering, are creating ever more sophisticated ways to interact with this internet of the senses. Imagine, for example, if food companies could detect pathogens in their food supply networks before they could endanger human health, or lead to food spoilage. Some of this technology is already being used, for example, to screen for salmonella in packaged meat products.

Your sense of smell is important. It shapes many of our physical sensations that impact us deeply and directly. Companies are working diligently to further your sense of smell directly to the internet. And while your online experience today does not involve digital scents, it will in the next few years. You can bank on it.

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