Surf and sniff

Scent with your site? A new company bets on odor technology.

Published October 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Smell-enhanced surfing: It's a concept so bizarre it just has to be a hoax. Imagine stink-bomb-scented e-mail from angry ex-lovers. Online used-car salesman who perfume their Web sites with authentic "new leather." Video games that blast you with the hot stench of alien guts. What a hoot!

Computer-enhanced scents have, in fact, been the subject of online hoaxes in the past -- such as that old RealAroma Web site from the folks at, which promised "SmellU SmellMe(R) Aroma Conferencing software" and a "RealTyme(TM) Smell Encoder (With Improved VacuuAction)."

So perhaps it's not surprising that when the company Digiscents made its existence public this week, via press releases and a Wired cover story, some of the first responses it received were baffled e-mails saying, "This must be a joke."

"My response to that was 'This is funny, but it's definitely not a joke,'" laughs Dexster Smith, who co-founded Digiscents last January with his longtime partner Joel Lloyd Bellenson. "This is something that Joel and I are used to. The last company we started, Pangea Systems, did genetic analysis and databases for drug discovery, and people called that 'Star Trek' medicine. We do things that stretch the public imagination."

Sure enough, it's a stretch to believe that a box called the iSmell will truly be able to waft recognizable scents through the air, triggered by cues in video games, software, television shows and other interactive entertainment. The iSmell, which is due to debut in early 2000, will apparently use a base of 128 scents that will combine to produce a spectrum of billions of common smells. And according to the author of this month's Wired cover story, who gave the iSmell a test-run, the thing actually works.

Digiscents is already talking to developers, primarily in the video game industry (which is always happy to add new gadgets to its games), about creating iSmell-enhanced products. Other consumers, Smith says, have shown excitement about designing their own scents -- though, he adds, "one of the things that the response has told me is that we are going to have a very receptive audience in the areas of adolescent humor and extreme entertainment." In other words, beware fart-scented spams from your annoying kid cousin.

Do surfers really want their computer to spray scents at them as they surf? Or is this -- like John Waters' scratch-and-sniff Odorama movie "Polyester" and the Smello-Vision film experiments of the 1950s -- just a cute gimmick that will grow tiresome after one stinky e-commerce site too many?

"When sound was added to movies, people had the same reaction -- they thought it was a gimmick," Bellenson points out. "It's a sensory stimulation that Americans aren't familiar with. But the fact is, people are craving more immersive experiences."

And if it turns out that they don't want to smell those digital roses after all, he adds, "That's why there's an on and off button."

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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