Well, at least stink doesn't linger

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

I tried to stop and smell the digitally synthesized roses, really I did.

When DigiScents founder Dexster Smith fired up the company's iSmell gadget for a demo, I wanted to believe. He clicked on a fir tree icon on the computer screen and said, "There's pine."

I closed my eyes briefly and tried to imagine myself romping through a verdant forest, as if I were starring in a Clairol Herbal Essence commercial. But the cloying blast from the device was more like pine-scented air freshener baking in a summer sun.

And I didn't do much better with the fruit or flowers. Smith rolled his mouse over pictures of bananas, grapes and watermelon. All I got from iSmell was a sickly sweet smell.

The various floral odors were so harsh that I felt my eyes start to tear and my throat clutch.

A video clip of a breakfast scene from "Pleasantville" was "enhanced" with the odor of blueberry pancakes, which I could discern as three separate, all unpleasant aromas: the fake butter of movie popcorn, blueberry with all the subtlety of Jell-O, and a sickly sweet smell that must have been maple syrup.

Just as DigiScents promised, each scent dissipated quickly, which made the experience more tolerable than if they had lingered. The ability to whisk away odors has been a big issue in past attempts to link odors and entertainment.

"The problem with Smell-O-Vision [a 1950s attempt at integrating smells with movies, which flopped miserably] was they couldn't get rid of it," said Terry Molnar, director of the Olfactory Research Fund, a New York nonprofit that funds aroma studies. "They'd pump each scent into the theater and it would stay there, so you'd end up with a big stink."

Back at DigiScents, watching a video clip of "The Wizard of Oz," it was fun to smell poppies as Dorothy and the gang romped through a field of them and the Wicked Witch crooned, "Poppies will put them to sleep."

But a scene from the witch's tower with the flying monkeys and a bubbling caldron, where I was treated to essence of monkey and something else unpleasantly rancid (perhaps eye of newt?), didn't do anything for me. If I wanted an odor like that, I could just open my son's closet door and breathe deeply.

Admittedly, my senses are not the most discerning.

I'm one of those people who fails blind taste tests and I can never figure out what flavor the various Jelly Bellys purport to be.

But after my visit to DigiScents' office, I was happy to be back on the fresh streets of Oakland, with a breeze blowing exhaust fumes at me from a transit bus.

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