Smell

That's right. If you close your eyes, you can almost smell the technology.

April 03, 2000|By Carolyn Said | Carolyn Said,san francisco chronicle

Quick, what does the Web really need?

If you said more eloquence and fewer dancing cursors, clearly you don't have what it takes to be a high-stakes dot-com wheeler and dealer.

The right answer: Smells.

So says an Oakland, Calif., company that has invented a computer add-on that can produce hundreds of odors on command.

Buying perfume online? Plug DigiScents Inc.'s iSmell into your PC and you can sniff before you spend. Sending an e-mail love letter? Bathe it in the aroma of a dozen roses (cheaper than the real thing). Addicted to Soldier of Fortune? Smell the blood, sweat and tears of your enemies as you rend them limb by limb.

It sounds absurd.

But that's what people in the '20s first said about movies with sound, counter Joel Bellenson and Dexster Smith, DigiScents' founders. They have lined up $10 million in financial backing and say they have e-commerce and game firms who are eager to give customers a new sensory experience.

"This offers another dimension of communications, not just automated scratch 'n' sniff," Smith said. Having a PC-connected personal scent dispenser "opens up a whole new world to the average person."

And, yes, these guys can smell the money.

DigiScents hopes to sign up licensees e-commerce companies selling everything from body lotions to wine, and game firms that want their games to be immersive experiences to subsidize their $200 device, infusing the world with several hundred thousand iSmell boxes soon after it's ready for prime time. They project its U.S. release for early next year.

"Having that peripheral actually print a sample for you could be a very, very powerful way to sell fragrance on the Internet," said Jim Kenney, chief executive of Sephora.com, a leading online store for perfume, cosmetics and body care products. He declined to say whether Sephora would use the iSmell.

Lingering like the stench of month-old cottage cheese is the question: Do computer users really want to sniff while they surf?

"The downside of the whole computing experience is that it can be kind of sterile," said Jim Penhune, an analyst with the Yankee Group in Boston. "But also one of the nice things about this flat, visually oriented medium is that you don't get involved with some intrusions you deal with in daily life, like smells. I'm not sure how many consumers will be eager to have that much smelling going on as part of their computing experience," he said.

"I think people who are keenly aware of the olfactory world would find it an addition to their current activities," said Charles Wysocki, a neuroscientist with Monell Chemical Senses Center, a Philadelphia research institute that investigates taste and smell. "But there might be different acceptance depending on the context."

Inhaling bursts of fragrance along with Web ads "might feel like an invasion of privacy," he said, while experiencing scents in games "could create a heightened awareness."

Marketers have increasingly exploited the power of scent. "There's a trend toward multisensory environments in retail and public spaces," said Terry Molnar, director of the Olfactory Research Fund, a New York nonprofit group that funds aroma studies.

Shopping malls pump out the smell of fresh-baked cookies or use fir scents to stimulate thoughts of holiday presents. Used-car dealers spray "new car smell" on their vehicles to send a subliminal message that they're factory fresh. Hotels give their lobbies a whiff of ocean spray or woods to create a welcoming environment.

In 1998, Bellenson and Smith were kicking back in Florida, busy "being retired bachelors," when they were "swept away with the sensory experience the ocean, suntan lotion, perfume, food," Bellenson said. That triggered a brainstorm: They would create a way to digitize scents and transmit them over electronic media.

"Our vision is to empower people to gain mastery over scented media," Bellenson said.

Forget sticky, the mantra for most Web sites. These guys want to make sites stinky.

Bellenson and Smith envision music lovers composing "scent tracks" to accompany favorite tunes and videos, people crafting their own fragrances online, aromatherapy over the Net. "Millions of people could become scentographers" using scent as a medium of self-expression Smith said.

DigiScents says a major corporation, "the Disney of consumer products," has licensed the technology, but won't disclose its plans for two months.

By summer DigiScents plans to open the "Snortal," a "scented portal" where Web surfers can flock to engage in aromatic behavior, like sending smelly e-mail. The company persuaded RealNetworks to add DigiScents software to its RealPlayer, which means its 80 million users will be able to plug and play, er, sniff, the iSmell boxes.

And Bellenson and Smith are talking to advertising, music and movie companies about potential deals.

Besides licensing the technology to companies, DigiScents plans to make money by selling replacement cartridges of "primary odors" for the devices at $25 to $35 a pop.

Bellenson and Smith have traveled the startup road together before: In 1991, they founded the Oakland biotech firm Pangea, which makes software for researching gene sequences, and have since bowed out of its day-to-day operations. Now renamed DoubleTwist.com, the company is about to go public.

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