Sure, the idea sounds ridiculous – on paper. But what if it worked?
In 1999, amidst the tech boom (later known more derisively as the dot-com bubble), almost anything seemed possible. As ever more people signed on to the “internet” and visited the ubiquitous Angelfire, Tripod and Geocities sites, it became obvious that more visually arresting sites were drawing heavier traffic. Places which incorporated sounds into their site design also brought in visitors. It seemed like a natural progression to attend to a third sense… the sense of smell.
The company Digiscents decided to attack that market before anyone else, and they did so with their new device, the iSmell. It was a small fin which attached to a USB port, and contained an array of scent generators which could be controlled through electrical stimulation to aromatic material and by blowing the resultant oils through an aperture which would allow individual scents to permeate the air.
The idea was simple. When people visited a site which had an iSmell code, the device would trigger the release of the appropriate scents. In this way, visitors to a food site or a perfume seller could get more than a simple visual cue about the items being displayed, or a person who blogged about beach travel might cause ocean scents to be released by the device. It could also be used in coordination with streaming video (at that point, primarily through CD-Rom driven games) to create an immersive experience.
Here’s an interview with the CEO from 2000:
This is the point in the narrative where I might reasonably be expected to explain why it didn’t work. The stimulation of specific oils needed to be astonishingly precise. Certain scent chemicals, used more than a few times, would burn out of the device. Those are concerns… but the simple fact is that the device, according to reports, did work, and it worked well. A large number of distinct smells could be generated by the small device, and when the scent generating chemicals burned out, a new device could be cheaply installed by simply swapping it into the USB port.
The reason the iSmell isn’t still in use today doesn’t have anything to do with operational failures. Despite a large supply of investment cash from perfume and cologne manufacturers and a series of working models, attempts to market the device failed because nobody wanted to buy the things. Distributors weren’t interested, electronics stores didn’t see a market need, and attempts to sell the devices directly from the Digiscents web site produced more curiosity than actual sales.
If they’d only had a catchy name like “Flooz”…
Question of the night: What is a defunct company you used to patronize?