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Soon your text messages could smell like curry

Scent technology is perennial interest among technologists.

Though it didn’t make the final cut, designers for the newest Xbox One controller reportedly considered a smell feature. At last year’s CES, Game accessory maker SensoryAcumen showed off the unfortunately named GameSkunk, a device that promised to add some flavor to games, such as the pong of gasoline as a Humvee rolls past. “Don’t just play, play all the way,” says SensoryAcumen’s marketing. GameSkunk also never made it to market.

These early experiments in “smellables” may be part stunt, part speculation, but scent is being mined as a new focal point of interaction for companies looking to break through a cluttered communication environment.

Fellow futurist and food trends specialist Dr. Morgaine Gaye of London-based Bellwether Food Trends told me that these experiments are probably just the beginning. “Smell is the only sense we can’t block out—it’s pervasive and powerful,” she explained via email. “Consumers are looking for experience and brands in an increasingly competitive marketplace—scent branding increases brand identification at a subliminal (sometimes) level.”

The battle for deeper connections with consumers, who are increasingly hidden behind a TV, tablet, smartphone or game console, has led to the rise of the smell notification. Here are some of our favorites:

This curry says “I love you”

The obvious starting point for smell communication is the smartphone, a ubiquitous device we already bling to death, and for which a growing panoply of notifications, vibrations and ambient signals are added with each new release. Japan’s Scentee sells a plug-in atomizer for smartphones (currently selling for around $35 on Amazon.jp), which can be customized when triggered by an app to spritz standard aromas such as rose and lavender, as well as more unique tastes of curry, coffee or cinnamon roll, costing just over $5 for 100 sprays.

The company suggests its product be shared by “lovers,” and lists use cases such as getting a whiff of your chosen scent each time you get a Facebook like or, as part of a wakeup alarm. There’s no word yet on whether it will come to the US.

Scentee also makes a meat-smelling app, Hana Yakiniku, which emits the scent of various grilled meats using the same technology, for the same costs as the sweet-smelling aromas. Instead of aiming for relationship enhancement, Scentee’s “big bang in yakiniku [grilled meat]” is pitched at students with no money, and dieters. The app I downloaded offered me a choice of short-ribs, beef tongue or buttered potato. Given the problems we face with Peak Meat globally, Scentee may be on to something useful.

Sending a smell symphony

Biomedical engineering professor David Edwards wants to go beyond the simple exchange of one-note smells and deliver an olfactory symphony. Edwards’ creation, Ophone, made out of his Paris-based studio Le Laboratoire, is less a phone and more of a connected scent delivery device. Using different scent “chips” deployed through an array of Ophones, Edwards wants to enable communication through a blend of odors. Instead of the boring “meet u at Café Mundane @ 4?” text, an Ophone-owner can send a mix of coffee scents, while the recipient sends back the aroma of a fruit pie. Edwards’ Ophone app allows the user to orchestrate notes of aroma in sequence, creating more of a “message” than a simple spritz. According to Karine Scherrer of Le Laboratoire, the Ophone will be made available through a limited commercial launch in Q4 2014, focused on culinary, social network, and entertainment applications.

Tap to expand image
OphoneLe Laboratoire

Other scent technology experiments are in earlier stages, like designer Aisen Caro Chacin’s Scent Rhythm watch, a wrist-worn “watch” that lets you know the time of day through associated scents—espresso in the morning to help wake you, chamomile in the evening to nudge the body into sleep. Chacin’s work seeks to tie aromas to the body’s own internal chemical clock, something food companies have attempted at a higher level through marketing for decades by showing us ads of waking up to coffee.

Smell as brand message

PopSecret’s recent Pop Dongle experiment demonstrates how brands can use our phones to get to our noses to reinforce the strong sensory relationships we have with certain products. A snap-on smartphone accessory that emits squirts of buttery popcorn smell, limited edition kernel-shaped Pop Dongles were created by PopSecret to accompany its Poptopia iPhone game. Reportedly, only 30 were made, with some given out by the company late last year and a handful sold on eBay (for between $300 and $500, with proceeds going to the Red Cross).

As a first-of-its kind test, Pop Dongle was hit-and-miss, though it achieved the buzz the company and its agency, Deutsch LA, were undoubtedly after. Tech pundit David Pogue reported on his Tumblr that the Pop Dongle’s smell was “borderline queasy-making from the very first puff,” while Fast Company’s Alice Truong said the buttery aroma lingered on the hands after play, the kind of hazard smell technology designers will have to account for in the future. While most smartphones are designed to withstand natural oils from users hands, it’s doubtful any are yet engineered to deal with large quantities of scent oils.

Nosing into the future

While it sounds intriguing to apply scents to apps and games, Gaye pointed out that playing with smell is potentially tricky ground. Humans are specialized machines when it comes to scent—everything from health conditions to psychological associations to cultural factors determine how we interpret smells.

“Our general scent recall is about 10,000 smells,” she wrote in an email, and even specialists can disagree on interpretation of particular smells. And for many people, smells are often somewhat subliminal. “It’s a very difficult area when thinking of a smell or scent brand (combination of scents) to appeal to anyone. We identify everything, including home, loved ones, etc. via smell but we don’t name those smells.”

Cultural differences may also play a role in where smell technology gains traction. The sample sizes are too small so we can only generalize, but so far, Japan appears to have taken a greater interest in network-delivered scents, with trials of TV-based smell transmission, USB smell micro-cannons, and perfume cartridges for iPhones than other countries. Japan’s unique palate, giving us the fifth taste, the savory umami, could in part explain its penchant for unique scents as exemplified in the high-profile recent row over the smell of Western fabric softener.

We’re only getting the early whiffs of olfactory interaction, whether as a means of poking each other digitally, or as a kind of data transmission—as early experiments with texting via chemical spray suggest. In a few years’ time, that new car ad on TV or the web might try to persuade you with a puff of “new car smell.” For now, these remain interesting—if fringe—tests to understand how our most primal sense can be harnessed to express experiences or emotions remotely. Even with today’s retina displays, 4K, 3D or HD sound, our eyes and ears can only be pushed so far, and truly textured touch interaction requires more than just vibration. The nose might be the most interesting route to our emotional brains yet.

You can follow Scott on Twitter @changeist. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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