A Digital Aroma; The Future Sense of Smell In Virtual Technology

Digital Aroma

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Did you know that the sense of smell can trigger personal memories more powerfully than sight or sound?

Did you also know that certain aromas might help you learn new skills and remember information better?

The presence of smells in the virtual and augmented reality applications you consume will skyrocket your sense of immersion to an extraordinary degree not otherwise achievable. Just imagine a virtual workplace safety course where you can actually learn to recognise the hazardous smells of smoke and gas leaks safely. Or a VR trip to a bakery where you can experience the mouthwatering aroma of the freshly baked bread for yourself.

And yet…in our increasingly digital climate where the gap between man and machine becomes smaller by the day, the power of the nose continues to be overlooked and underestimated.

But why is that?

Wake up and smell the…chemicals?

While it’s easy to make electronic sights and sounds for our eyes and ears to enjoy (or suffer), it’s currently impossible to stimulate the olfactory epithelium (the tissue in our nose which grants us our pong-detecting power) without the physical presence of chemicals in the air.

Dr Luca Turin also points out that while the things we see and hear can be broken down into elements, it’s not so straightforward with smell.

There are no odor ‘primaries’ like RGB or CMYK. That means you cannot obtain the full gamut of doors from mixing a few.

In other words, we can compare two sounds by looking at their frequencies or digital waveforms, and we can compare two colours by considering their hue, saturation and lightness. But how can we scientifically explain the differences between the aromas of lavender and lemon, without exploring the chemical makeup of each? Binary code can’t yet be converted into chemicals, so the days of smelling 0s and 1s are far, far away.

Stinky cinema

This isn’t to say that integrating smell with media via other means is impossible, however. Throughout the 20th century, inventors have thought about integrating scents into film and theatre.

Among the most high-profile of the resulting experiments was the Smell-O-Vision, devised by Swiss osmologist Hans Laube. This was a system in which movie goers’ seats were installed with a “smell brain”: a collection of scent containers positioned on a conveyor belt. These scents would be sequentially released out of vents in the chair, in sync with the events of the film. The Smell-O-Vision made its first and last appearance with Scent of Mystery, a 1960 film directed by Jack Cardiff with the technology in mind. These smells would serve as cues to help involve the audience in solving the presented mystery.

However, this experiment proved to be a fetid failure. The aroma-generating device made a loud hissing noise which distracted the audience from the sound of the film, and the time it took to diffuse the smell meant that audiences would often smell the target aroma moments after the film event it was intended to match up with. Furthermore, some members of the audience got more of the smell than others depending on their position, meaning that Scent of Mystery’s soundtrack was contaminated by a symphony of sniffs. Cardiff himself regarded the film as an old shame for these reasons:

“Scent of Mystery is the one film I want to erase from my memory. The reason for this is that, through no fault of my own, the film was a complete disaster.”

Next-gen scent gens?

Well, maybe ambient aromas within the cinema won’t catch on any time soon. But researchers have explored other ways in which media and technological applications can be enhanced with smell.

Yasuyaki Yanagida, a Japanese professor at Meijo University who specialises in virtual reality, has actually explored several ways an olfactory device could work in an immersive environment. Each of these has their own benefits and drawbacks which should be considered.

One idea is to have a static scent generator, which would fill the entire space with the target aroma. The smell can originate from a perfume or harmless odorous chemical stored in the body, which is then sprayed to diffuse the virtual environment. While this would be great for an environment with a single ambient smell that everyone can smell at once, it’d be more difficult for applications involving different smells.

For applications where smells change and are more controlled, smaller individual scent generators for each user may be a better option. These generators should be comfortable and compact, like a headset worn by the user. The more comfortable and discreet the device is, the better the immersion.

Whatever the olfactory device of the future looks like, we know it’s going to open up a lot more possibilities not otherwise possible with the technology we have alone, such as virtual aromatherapy, perfume sampling environments, more engaging training exercises…we can smell the potential from miles!


Montefiore, C.S. (2015). The Movie You Can Smell. [online] www.bbc.com. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20151013-the-movie-you-can-smell [Accessed 21 Apr. 2021].

Turin, L. (2009). Perfumes: the A-Z guide. London: Profile Books.

Yanagida, Y. (2012). A survey of olfactory displays: Making and delivering scents. In: 2012 IEEE Sensors. [Online]. October 2012, Taipei, Taiwan: IEEE, pp. 1–4. Available from: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/6411380/. [Accessed: 21 Apr. 2021].

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