Digital devices allow us to experience almost anything in the world vicariously. Whether it’s through sight or sound, our devices bring us that much closer to being there. But the one thing our phones and tablets cannot do just yet is send us scents.
Is it even possible to mass communicate smell? It is but it’s harder.
Dr. Luca Turin, biophysicist and author of Perfumes: The A-Z guide, explains, “There are two main technological obstacles to making smell transmissible by digital means.”
According to Turin, there are no odor “primaries” like there are color primaries RGB or CMYK. This obstacle means you cannot get a full range of odors from mixing only a few. Another obstacle to sending smells digitally is that is impossible to stimulate the olfactory epithelium (the thin tissue forming the outer layer of a body's surface and lining the alimentary canal and other hollow structures) directly. Without an actual chemical in the inhaled air creating a scent, the sensation of smell cannot be elicited.
David Edwards, founder of the oPhone, seems to think otherwise. He developed the device that allowed people with to send bespoke olfactory messages with photos using an app. The process was simple: Send photo, tag with four different tones, the receiver sniffs the scent from the vase-like tubes of the device.
Edwards had envisioned a future where people would send each other scent messages. The oPhone didn’t take off and the company has since shifted their focus on Cyrano, a “scent speaker,” the size of a four-ounce jar, which uses a range of scent capsules to emit smells. They can be combined into “mood medleys” like Get Relaxed” (honeysuckle, lavender, lilac, and vanilla), “Get Away” (guava, coconut, suntan, and venetian bellini) or “Get Energized” (pine, peppermint, orange ginger, and wingz).
But why the fascination with sending digital scents in the first place? Have we become so immersed in digital experiences that we have to now include our noses in the experience, too?
Our digital stimuli is odorless. While our eyes and ears feast, our noses are left out of the party.
This year has been a huge year for the scent industry with an estimated 2,400 fragrances launched. A growing part of this number are those positioned as artisanal scents; scents emphasizing a connection with physical materials like Paul Schütze creating perfumes based on storms and books, or Louis Vuitton wanting to create fragrances the way they used to be designed, rather than abstract nouns.
“If you have craft beer, and clothes being made by hand in a small boutique, you’ll also have perfumes that have that artisanal feel to them,” explains food futurologist Dr. Morgaine Gaye.
The fascination with all things craft could be directly related to more disposable income but it’s definitely a contrast to living a life online. Designer and olfactory artist Mindy Yang says, “The more we’re plugged into the virtual world, the more we deeply appreciate the contrast – moments in our human experience.”
Scent pulls on our memory associations. It’s such a powerful sense that even big brands are marketing to our noses with scent designing.
“There is no guard against a fragrance as an emotional trigger so long as one is not anosmic [unable to discern smell]! Done right, olfactive marketing is an incredibly powerful tool,” says Yang.
Nescafé, the instant coffee brand found almost everywhere in its glass jars with plastic lids and foil, has been reeling people in at the grocery. The smell of Nescafé is embedded in its labels so buyers smell it off the shelf. You experience the brand as soon as you’re in the coffee aisle deciding which coffee to reach for.
While brands are moving into marketing to our noses, the probability of capitalizing on the digital delivery of scents remains to be seen. What is undeniable though is the fact that for the majority of the population who have use of their eyes and ears, the option to look away or not listen is available but smelling is different.
“You can not look, and you can not listen, but you can’t not breathe,” says Gaye. “So you can’t not smell. So you don’t have a choice. The brands that are doing it more cleverly are the ones where you don’t know it is happening. You never question it.”