Welcome to the New Consumer Computing Format!
Monday, April 8, 2002
Of all our modes of perception, "smell" is one of the most powerful.
While multimedia has embraced some of our senses -- seeing and hearing, and more recently even tactile sensations through "haptic" mice -- it can now pull us in through the smell, and even taste, of mom's apple pie wafting out of our very own computers.
And look, Ma, -- no calories!
For the skinny on some of the fat smells I talked to Paul Vasey about in today's show, click here to listen in RealAudio
Below I'll be telling you more about how you can get your hands and nostrils on "scentware" in ways that are both practical and fun.
Who Smelled it First?
In the late nineties a company named "DigiScent" was a noisy pioneer in the field of smelly computing. Introducing a scent device called "iSmell" they were able to bring websites to life in a way that had never been done before.
But for all the fanfare of their marketing and their 20 million dollar capital, they still disappeared from the digital landscape last year in April, 2001. The number of skeptics outweighed the number of believers when it came time for initial investors to make good on the dollars, and the company folded.
Ivey engaged Michael Mane's North Carolina company to create the scents, and partnered with a firm in Detroit to design the equipment that would send them wafting in heavenly ways from our computers.
(Ivey is also known for another innovative sensory tool -- one that is currently being considered by members of the automotive industry. He developed a steering wheel that senses the ethanol emissions from a driver's hands, detecting whether or not they may be drunk, and activating safety measures in the car to prevent them from driving it).
Like the folks at DigiScent, Ellwood's innovation was met with it's fair share of skeptical reserve. PR Newswire, which distributes corporate news to media outlets and other clients, demanded proof before it would file a release about the company's patent in February of 2000.
How are folks responding two years later? Ellwood has been featured in Richard Laermer's new book, "TrendSpotting: Think Forward, Look Ahead, and Cash in on the Future", and recently appeared on the "Today Show" to talk about the innovation he's brought to life through TriSenx. The folks at TriSenx tell me you can also look forward to seeing the release of their new products soon.
* Stay tuned for a special feature based on my interview with Ellwood. You'll find it in the "Connecting with Guests" forum later this week.
So what exactly is all this smelly computing about anyway?
What is "ScentWare" and How Does it Work?
There are two types of software. One allows you to "design" your own custom fragrances, and the other allows you to receive the codes for a custom scent and have them activate a spray device so you can smell it.
The design software is often as simple as a web page with pictures of familiar scents (apple pie, popcorn, fresh rain, flowers) that you can "drag" with your mouse into a virtual beaker and mix. The combinations you choose can be saved as a custom fragrance, which gets stored as "codes" to be passed to a spray device.
The spray device is a piece of hardware that can be plugged into one of the serial ports of your computer, the way a printer plugs in. This device has a disposable cartridge with a number of chambers inside, each containing a chemical compound that can be mixed with others to match the custom scent you've created.
When you create your scent in your "computer lab", you choose the length of time the scent should be "sprayed" and how long the spray device's fan should continue wafting the smells. You can even decide to have the smell triggered by a particular object or event in a game, or on a webpage, or in a movie, electronic book or music.
And yes, I did say you could "taste" what's on a webpage too. ScentWare gurus like TriSenx even offer an UltraSenx machine capable of dispensing glorious flavours. Like the plug-in that sprays scents, you can also get cartridges filled with FDA-approved, water-based flavour agents. Land on your favourite "death by chocolate" site and it sends those magic codes down to activate the controller to spray that decadent taste onto a potatoe starch wafer that you can then lick or completely eat. (Don't worry -- I'm already checking into the calorie angle on those wafers, but it's bound to be less than a pound of hot fudge!)
Why Would You Want to Do This?
There are four basic types of applications that scentware seems a logic fit for at the moment:
Multisensory Marketing: Death to Banner Ads - Let the Nose Lead the Way
Commerce tends to lead development, which is why some of the bigger scentware developers, like TriSenx, are partnering with companies that just plain smell. Perfume manufacturers are an obvious fit. They would be able to benefit from doing market research across the net, emailing you samples of some new fragrance they might be trying out to see how you like it, and using your feedback to shape the final product. And the heck with scratch-and-sniff cards in your favourite magazine. Now you'll smell their latest and greatest when you arrive at your favourite women's website or online boutique.
Other companies who've taken the bait besides the cosmetics, fragrance, and health and beauty industries? -- restaurants and specialty food shops who know the smell of pizza wafting out of your PC, or maybe mom's chocolate chip cookies, will just be too much too resist. It adds a new dimension to the point-of-sale marketing angle. You're visiting a website that is known to attract a large number of people from a particular demographics. The heck with banner advertising when the marketer has a better way to get you hooked on what their hocking.
Even better than smelling those chocolate cookies? How'd you like to taste them too? TriSenx is working to bring pizza, popcorn, mom's apple pie and even those cookies to your PC complements of some of the bigger food delivery services through the net via "taste simulation". (Won't this require a whole new level of trust when you receive the latest wave of spam emails coaxing you to try out the latest flavour of some darn thing or another?)
Entertainment: Emails, Movies, Books and Music Alive with Smell
Of all the uses for scentware, this one scares me most: the ability to send emails with smells anybody can design. Sure, it'll add a fun new dimension to Valentine's Day when you can send an electronic postcard with nice music and a dozen roses that smell real, but can you imagine the legions of alternatives your friends (and others) will opt for? Dirty sneakers, wet dogs, maybe worse assaults to your delicate sensibilities will all be within the reach of email artists and spammers alike.
There are, however, more creative uses of scentware in bringing to life the stories we tell through more traditional mediums.
Who's looking at smell-o-vision now? Movie theatres who want to top surround-sound are now looking at mounting surround-smell devices on theatre chairs. This might be great if you're watching some nice, homey flick full of gardens and cherry pie, but imagine watching one of Tom Green's latest romps, complete with a fullout olfactory assault? 3-D glasses won't hold a candle to the way that'll have you out of your chair.
Of course there's also the movies you bring home. Will your next DVD come complete with a soundtrack AND a smelltrack?
For authors and music composers the idea of adding taste and smell to their creative conjurings seems irresistable. Words can be powerful stimulators of imagined tastes and smells, but the ability to bring those exact things to lif may make the electronic distribution of storytelling an even more tempting channel. Perhaps a glimpse of the next evolution of megabookstores and internet cafés?
Education: Tapping Into Another Information Channel
You need only to walk into a bakery or popcorn-filled theatre to realize the powerful ability of smell to invoke memory.
It's this power that makes the addition of scent to the classroom experience such an interesting new ally. I don't know about you, but reading about Shakespeare or Napoleon out of a textbook was rarely inspiring. Had you given me the chance to "interact" with history through the sites, sounds, tastes and smells of that time, you'd probably have had me hooked.
Virtual field trips have become an invaluable tool for bringing important experiences into the classroom where time or geography may otherwise prevent them. The addition of smell is acknowledged as a tool that enhances the memory of that experience, and the amount of knowledge that is retained because of it.
Medical: a New Tool for Catching Degenerative Neurological Diseases Early
Aromatherapy will perhaps be one of the big drivers of home computer scentware sales. In addition to ergonomically correct keyboards and mice, music while we work, and even computer-based workouts to help you keep fit, you can now add smell to your list of tools for increasing personal wellbeing. The benefits of aromatherapy go beyond personal pleasure. It's valued within a number of health and healthcare settings as an important part of "tuning up".
One of the ideas that AromaJet.com is developing for future home products will give you the ability to program a mother's scent into an aroma generating device that can then be placed near a crib to help comfort a baby while sleeping..
There is another more clinical use for smell simulation technologies that is piquing the interest of medical professionals.
AromaJet.com is one of TriSenx Inc.'s staunchest competitors, and yet distinguised by their foray into particular vertical markets that have a much more enduring value than entertainment and marketing.
AromaJet.com is a spinoff of MicroFab Technologies, who introduced the "Olfactometer" in the mid-nineties. Doctors are able to use the new digital instrument to assess and measure the olfactory threshold in a patient, providing for an earlier detection of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease.
MicroFab's success in the area of olfactive technologies lead them to establish their current AromaJet.com website, where they are beginning to explore other uses for the technology, including gaming, kiosk-based marketing, and entertainment.
What are the Limitations of This Technology?
The obvious one is the price. Most home computer users won't be willing to pay the $250-500+ price tag for the luxury of scratch-and-sniff websites. Some diehard game fans may find the olfactory add-on a worthwhile boost to their multimedia experience, but chances are this technology will find it's first strong market in mall kiosks and other specialty shops.
While many fragrance manufacturers will find the ability to use scentware for both market research and the generation of new sales, most of the "ScentWare" applications available today operate at a very simple level and aren't capable of reproducing the very complex protein level of molecule modelling that commercial fragrances require. Specialty food marketers will face the same problem. While pizza, popcorn and apple pie are already stock smells in a number of scentware collections, exact replicas of some of the more complex "branded" foods that big distributers want to entice you with just won't be possible yet. While a few year's old, the technology is still immature, and will require a commited partners and reasonable investment to customize the results in a way that's suitable for companies who's smell is their branding.
Like any other "next big thing", smelly computing and olfactive marketing will have to gain critical mass, and that's not likely to happen through consumer computing. It will come when a large corporation takes the gamble and invests in a product that people just can't live without. We saw this happen to a limited degree when multimedia was added to music CDs. Artists like Sting were early adopters of that particular technology, and had fan bases big enough to create a market niche that started the ball rolling. People liked having access to the extra information from their favourite group, including movies, biographical galleries, and other multimedia treats. This same type of "value added" function is shaping the rise of DVDs as not only an alternative but replacement for the video format in movies.
Ideas are epidemics, and once this one catches on and a real market takes hold, it won't be long before the price comes down and scentware becomes another standard feature on computers the way that microphones and video cards have.
So What Do YOU Think About the Future of Smelly Computing?
Do you think being able to smell the leather interior of that hot new car you can customize through your favourite automobile website will clinche the deal? Are you a web developer who's excited about being able to add this kind of tool to your kit? Are you more likely to bite into Mrs. Field's online if you can actually taste those marvellous chocolate chip cookies you accidentally fell into through a web-ad? Are you encouraged by the idea of finding a new way to help kids learn and have the knowledge stick, or being able to detect Alzheimers earlier? Are you concerned about safety, ethics, the novelty-factor or other aspects of smell and taste simulating technologies?
Like any new technology, there are folks who will love it, and folks who won't. Feel like exploring it a bit more? Come on over to our new forums and share your thoughts with other listeners who have some ideas of their own.
You can just read what others have to say, or sign up for free and grab the soap box as your own!
Contest for Kids
Click here to find out how your kids can win the "Putt-Putt Goes to the Moon" computer game for PCs and Macs. The game is a fun way for kids aged 3-8 to develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills by exploring over 30 lunar locations with one of top-rated Humoungous Entertainment's most endearing cartoon characters.
I'll be telling you more when you tune in to the show at 7:20 a.m. on Monday, April 22nd. The winner will be announced on my show on Monday, May 6th.
I'd like to invite you to visit our new forums!
It's a way of staying connected when a particular issue inspires you, or perhaps leaves you with questions.
This morning I invite you to share your questions and thoughts about smelly computing. You'll find a new forum open at 10:00 a.m. to tell me what YOU think about the latest addition to multimedia, and where you think it may or may not fit into the future of consumer computing.
Have some thoughts on what you'd like to see covered in future shows? Be sure to visit the Listeners Picks forum to tell me about it. I'm always looking for great new stories to share.
Have a terrific Monday morning, and let's keep talking!
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