The idea of using your smartphone to transmit smell is not new but recently a number of companies have been stepping up efforts in this field, with a wide range of goals. However none has yet really resulted in a commercial product.

Smell-Transmission Technologies Not Yet Catching On

Your smartphone is able to transmit sound, text, photos and video but what about smell? Recently a number of technologies designed to convey scent via a smartphone – using a small plug-in to the phone as with the Scentee approach or through a device with a separate connection – have seen the light of day. The latest gadget is a scent-based mobile messaging phone called the ‘oPhone’, developed by Vapor Communications, an information and communication technology startup with offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Paris, which is now diversifying its efforts and working on adding scents to e-books, songs and clothes. Sending scents to your friends will mean that they can actually smell the surroundings in which the hero of their novel is moving, link a piece of music to a given scent, and waft perfume through clothing. In fact this technology has a bewildering range of possible applications but the question could be asked: what is the point of transmitting scent via your smartphone? A quick tour of the work going on in this field provides the answer: its main use is in the entertainment world.


Enhancing the impact of entertainment

In Japan it was first tried out at cinemas, followed by electronic books and music. In fact the vast majority of the scent technology projects being pursued by Vapor Communications are to do with the entertainment industry. Similarly, the Japan Institute of Information and Communication Technology came up with the Multi Aroma Shooter, a small USB-connected device which transmits a range of smells linked to a film or the game running on your computer screen. There is little doubt that smells, which are strong triggers for memories and emotions, have enormous potential for the entertainment industry. This was the idea behind the gadget created two years ago named Madeleine in homage to the little biscuit that served French author Marcel Proust as a memory-trigger. In addition to arousing emotions, there is talk of applications in the e-commerce field – i.e. you might like to smell a perfume, coffee or spice before buying it. So far however no-one has come up with a business venture in this area.

A purely ephemeral phenomenon?

Ground-breaking and innovative though these olfactory experiments might be, their applications seem to have a very limited lifetime and few projects make it to the market. The oPhone, which launched at the beginning of the year, appears to be holding interest so far but the moves to introduce smell-enriched films tried out in Japan have not really caught on elsewhere. So are smelly books and scented songs fated to become museum pieces rather than mass market products? In another recent experiment US food company Oscar Mayer ran an advertising campaign that included selling small plug-in buttons for smartphones, designed to wake customers up with the smell of frying bacon instead of a noisy alarm. However, this idea, like the others, did not really become popular. Phones and scents seem to have a problem forging long-term relationships.

By Guillaume Scifo