A glimpse into the future: making sense of scents

It’s extraordinary how captivating imagery and vigorous music can not only affect our emotions or mood, but is capable of stimulating other senses that are beyond vision and hearing. One of the better examples of recent advertising campaigns that aim to capture taste and flavour via the audio-visual medium, are the award winning Lurpak commercials that celebrate delicious food and an invigorating cooking experience. High quality video close-ups depicting mouth-watering textures, along with dramatic music and a theatrical narrative makes you really feel as if you are about to taste these enticing meals yourself.

But what if we were able to actually smell what we see on our TV screens? What if the smell could be ‘broadcast’? It seems like technology is tenaciously searching for solutions to make this happen.

Cinemas have been toying with the idea of a more immersive film experience for a long time and it looks like they are making the first steps in incorporating smell in order to enhance audience experience. 4DX technology arrived in UK at the beginning of this year and has already offered a wide range of effects including tilting chairs, blowing air or water as well as light effects. In addition to these, 4DX has the ability to release smells such as coffee, fruity scents or even burning rubber and gun smoke that could be widely used in action films. However, for now its range is relatively limited as it has only 8 aromas available for any given film.

Cinema is not the only industry that tries to inject life into the visual medium, gaming companies have for over a decade tried to enhance players experience with various tools to stimulate their senses, such as vibrating chairs, vests that replicate the sensation of a gunshot, or something as specific as tracing a finger across the skin. The latest innovation is olfactory-based technology launched by start up company Feelreal. It has introduced masks that allow gamers to smell virtual environments. These masks are mounted over the lower part of the users face and include an odour generator with removable smell cartridges, which release a mixture of odours to create an appropriate scent for certain scenes in the game or movie. Meanwhile, US based company Kokiri Lab use the Oculus Rift headset to recreate an eating experience for people who are restricted by an allergy condition or want to limit their calorie intake. They use low-calorie jelly-like food substitutes, which with the help of this virtual reality tool taste like a rich and flavoursome lasagne, steak or any other indulgent meal.

Similarly, in the art world, curators are preoccupied with the question of how to make art more approachable and engaging to gallery visitors. The recent exhibition Sensorium at the Tate Modern, London, searched for answers by employing technology that stimulates our senses by triggering memory & imagination, helping us to connect with paintings in a more engaging way. The odours of original hairspray and wood polish in addition to audio effects are used to bring to life Hamilton’s 1964 collage. Whilst Francis Bacon’s artwork is complemented by chocolate that has a unique salty flavour and dense, earthy texture. Both offer an entirely new and much more immersive perspective to the artwork. The exhibition audience are given wristbands that record their physiological responses as part of ongoing research into understanding the viewers’ experience.

Scent is becoming recognized as a powerful tool to help create emotionally rich and memorable experiences. A good example of this is technology giant Samsung claiming that consumers spend on average of 20 to 30 per cent more time in their stores after introduction of designated scent to Samsung stores. Sensory branding strategy worked well as a way to build unique brand’s identity for many brands, from food chains such as Subway to upscale American retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch or Victoria Secret. And it is clear that in the future brand identity will not only be determined by visual clues such as colours or symbols within their logos or the jingles of their ad campaigns but also by their olfactory qualities. And it seems like this trend will continue to grow beyond in-store experience. Olfactory qualities are becoming more and more recognized as an important dimension when it comes to the User Experience. Therefore, observing such a development in multi-sensory technology field, TVs emitting scent doesn’t sound like a utopian dream anymore. So isn’t it time to start to think what does your brand smell like?