Digital Scent Technology

Digital technology today focuses on two senses; hearing and seeing. We have amazing music, pictures, and videos. But what if we can share and consume smell the same way we do with visual or auditorial content? Digital scent technology has the potential to disrupt every industry by enhancing our experiences and tapping into our most emotional sense.

Ever since I fell in love with business, I keep tabs on business ideas I come up with. Some, I find already exist or aren’t feasible, but I have predicted many ideas that became a reality and have some that I believe still have potential for the future. I like to come up with business ideas that would not only accommodate an industry but disrupt it. These types of ideas are commonly known as a moonshot or an innovation. They typically are more complex, and have massive potential for scale.

One of my more revering ideas is still in the sci-fi stage because the technology is so premature. However, I do strongly believe that it will someday be its own market and disrupt almost every single industry. In the future, we will be able to not only see, but also smell things that aren’t physical.

For someone who has done quite a bit of research on digital scent technology, I don’t know much about it. So let me just start with my vision for the tech and where it stands today.

The morning of April 3rd, 2017 I created a presentation for a product that digitizes scents. This product will allow us to record and send smells over the phone (and eventually over BCI’s) and expand our multisensory communication.

Attaching smells to pictures would enhance the liveliness and vibrance of the content we consume. It will allow people to send an entire experience that stimulates all senses except for touch and feel. Digital scent will also be used in other forms of digital media such as film, entertainment, and websites. Also, will be used in physical locations such as museums, commercial & residential buildings, and in medicine, education, and e-commerce.

Smell-O-Vision was a system that released odor during the projection of a film so that the viewer could “smell” what was happening in the movie. It made its only appearance in the 1960 film, Scent of Mystery.

The idea first came to me after thinking of how profusely visual our present world is. Industries that depend on vision probably make up most of the world’s GDP. Most productive work that produces economic value requires a lot of visual engagement. For example, administrative work, communication, production, logistics, and even consumption all require some sort of visual use. Looking at some of the largest industries today, visual components all play a huge role in the consumption of their product: social media, film, electronics, advertising, apparel, jewelry, cosmetics, travel, architecture, landscaping, art, and the list goes on.

The second most valuable human sense in terms of monetization and economic utility is auditorial. This implies things that we hear such as music, podcasts, sound effects, and all verbal communication. Auditory tech has been digital for a while now. We can create, record, send, and listen to almost any sound on our phones or the TV and when we want to consume it in high quality we can use a speaker or headphones.

The third most valuable sense in terms of economic value would be tied between touch & taste which are limited to food & beverage for taste, and healthcare, textile, carpentry, and others for touch.

It’s a visual world we live in.

Today, scent is monetized through the final product in the form of candles, diffusers, and fragrances. In business, smell is also very important but it’s used tangentially in industries such as food and beverage, beauty, fashion, hospitality, and others as opposed to a key contributor. It has the potential to expand its influence to many different industries in addition to creating its own separate industry.

Without getting too technical, I see the tech working sort of like a miniature diffuser that mystifies very small and controlled portions of smell. The device would exert molecules that reach the nostril which is then how we consume the digital scent. The device will have a handful of primary smells that can be precisely mixed (coded) to create the desired smell—similar to mixing the three primary colors to create any color in the rainbow.

Digital scent device.

Digital scent in social media will work in two ways. The first is by sharing smells by recording and sending across platforms. The second way is it will have a database of pre-identified smells so that when you send a picture of a familiar item, it automatically identifies the item and attaches the smell, or you can tag a smell to it.

Commercially, digital scent will be used to regulate smells inside of office buildings which may contribute to greater employee performance. It may also make a comeback to the cinema experience, and I imagine it being used in museums and all hospitality settings to enhance the aura of the environment.

The potential of marketing with digital scent is endless. Since scent is our most emotional sense and consumer buying decisions are mostly controlled by emotion, companies will be able to influence customers in many different ways, whether it’s by injecting nostalgia, joy, comfort, and even fear. Regardless of the industry, digital scent technology could enhance user experience by adding another layer to the experience.

Exaggerated depiction of Digital Scent technology.

So how far are we from smelling your friend’s Snapchat of their Domino’s pizza over the phone?

Today, a few people are experimenting with the technology. In 2016, scientists experimented with Electrical stimulation of olfactory receptors. This works by stimulating the olfactory receptors in the nasal cavity using weak electrical pulses. In the same year, Aromajoin Unveiled The New Aromajoin Mini & Smartphone App. According to the company, the device can be used in messaging the same way you send a sticker within a chat, except it attaches a smell.

We have already been able to create databases of coded smell which allows us to send and receive the scent. I have not yet tried one of these existing products myself, so I’m not sure how accurate the smells are or how the experience is, however, this is a promising milestone. (If you have tried it before, I’d love to hear your thoughts!)

The Aromajoin Mini Device that connects to your mobile phone.

The main limitations of this tech will be overcoming cost barriers and the unpredictability of airflow which hinders the transmission of digitalized smell. For an elaborate explanation of the current progress of digital scent technology click here.

Digital scent technology doesn’t need to spray particles for someone to receive a smell. The new method for delivering scent digitally using Electrical stimulation of olfactory receptors may be a breakthrough in the field. Currently, the process works by sticking a cable up to your nose, so the electrodes can make contact with neurons deep within the nasal passages. The cable has both a tiny camera and silver electrodes at its tip. The camera is used to navigate the nasal passages to bring the electrodes into contact with olfactory epithelium cells that reside about 7cm above and behind the nostrils. These cells send information up the olfactory nerve to the brain where the smell is experienced.

Typically, these olfactory cells are stimulated by chemical compounds that bind to cell receptors which is how we would typically experience smell. Instead, we can be zapped with an electric current. This method however is currently a proof-of-concept but it could be improved by making the insert smaller, more flexible, and more comfortable. Scientists are also looking if it would be feasible to skip past the nose’s olfactory cells and directly stimulate the brain. Time will tell.

Testing of the Electrical stimulation of olfactory receptors.

With the growth in AR & VR usage, the motivation to develop digital scent technology could increase in the next two decades. A lot of technology today enhances or even transforms reality. Whether through virtual worlds and communities or through AR-incorporated training programs as seen in healthcare, design, and the military. This idea still classifies as a moonshot, however, people are working on it as we speak. I am very excited about what it will become.

While sight and sound are the most technologically digitized senses, touch as well as taste has the potential to be tapped through our brain! Let’s save that for another discussion. Like this post if you would be interested in the technology of digitizing touch and taste.