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Whilst based on proven technology, with some smells and scent-reduction formulas having exceptionally lengthy histories, an industrial air freshener often evolves alongside technological breakthroughs.

 

Most of these advanced technologies are based on creating fragrance combinations that help make a commercial space more inviting and help people remain productive, but one lost technology threatened to do something more advanced than this.

 

In the peak of the dot-com bubble where it felt like technology could do anything, one company tried to change the way the internet smelt forever and very nearly succeeded.

This is the story of DigiScents’ iSmell technology and the lost digital scene revolution they promised.

 

Beyond Scratch And Sniff

Since the 1950s and the rise of the blockbuster feature film, people have been attempting to make media that is increasingly immersive to create experiences that cannot be found anywhere else.

 

One solution has been taking advantage of as many senses as possible, with 3D cinema making films look more tactile, surround sound creating the sensation that the action is happening around the audience members themselves, and occasionally vibrating seats to stimulate the sense of touch.

 

Of the two senses left, the only one that could realistically and consistently be incorporated into film was smell, but attempts to do so only ended in disaster, with no ultimate winner in the “battle of the smellies”.

 

The big issue was that such a system was largely inflexible; a smell-o-vision system needs to be specially calibrated for each film and each screening, and the more smells you want to use the more it would cost.

 

For such a system to take off as more than just a gimmick, there would need to be a way to standardise the system and the types of smells that would be used, and it would take until the end of the century for anyone to get close.

 

Printing Paradise

The origins of what would become DigiScents would come from a holiday taken on a Miami beach in 1999.

 

Joel Lloyd Bellenson and Dexter Smith were enraptured by the sheer breadth of smells that could be found oceanside, and like most people who went on holiday, wanted to find a way to take some of that experience home with them.

 

Whilst most would take home a souvenir or fill up a camera roll with pictures to show off later, Mr Bellenson and Mr Smith, at the time the founders of pharmaceutical IT startup Pangea Systems and successfully navigating the rising internet bubble, had a more technological approach.

 

The pitch idea was to create the olfactory equivalent of a colour printer; if a printer can create any colour or shade with just cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink, would it be possible to do the same with smells or tastes?

 

Could you make a computer device that could synthesise and diffuse a wide range of smells with a versatility that would make it as essential for computer use as the printer?

 

That was the thinking behind the iSmell, a shark-fin-like device that plugged into a typical desktop computer of the era via USB and would release a range of natural fragrance essences across the desk in a manner similar to a tabletop fragrance diffuser of the era.

 

What they wanted to do was create a programmable version of a Glade Plugin, one that could create as broad a range of smells as possible via a collection of base notes that could be collected together.

 

Whilst this included typically delightful essential oils and fragrances, it also included smells such as freshly-cut grass and rubber, as the aim was not just to create inviting smells in a computer room, but instead use smells to enhance interactive experiences.

 

They had an initial partnership with RealPlayer, which at the time was the largest streaming video platform on the internet, with the idea that streaming video could be made compatible with the iScent alongside tailored DVD player software.

 

They also planned on creating the first scented website in the form of the Snortal and had developed starter development kits (SDKs) for Windows and Java platforms.

 

This allowed online software designers and computer games programmers to add smell support, with as many as 5,000 developers working on “ScentWare” in 2001.

 

There was potential in the technology, to the point that DigiScents received $20m in major investments, as well as partnerships with Proctor & Gamble and Real Networks, but it did not take long for problems to emerge that as of 2023 still have not been solved.

 

The Scent Database

The logic behind the iScent was that it would work as a digital printer, where a combination of base notes can be combined to create a perfect combination of smells that could replicate any smell or any setting.

 

The problem is that the spectrum of scents is rather more complex than the colour spectrum in practice, and the prototype iScent units relied on 128 base fragrances, each of which would increase both the base cost and the cost of any additional refills.

 

As well as this, it was difficult both at the time and in retrospect to see how either businesses or retail consumers would get a lot of benefit out of the iScent.

 

Businesses were promised a device that would allow people to sample fragrances via the iScent, but either it did not work and gave consumers the wrong impression, or it did work and would make a fragrance product redundant.

 

Smells also cannot be activated immediately, with the system taking a little time to suck up air, selectively heat the oils and blast it out of the vent. Whilst it would not be as slow as the infamous Scent of a Mystery, it was still not an immediate response.

 

Finally, and somewhat unfortunately given the potential of the technology, there was the existential question of whether smells would make the internet, online video or computer games fundamentally better in a way that would justify the cost.

 

Ultimately, DigiScents never truly got to find out. In 2000, the stock market crashed and internet-based stocks fell 75 per cent from their peak. The boundless optimism of investors and consumers alike had gone and DigiScents went bankrupt.

 

There have been relatively few attempts in the years since, with a lot of companies still struggling with the same problems iScent did.

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