By Olga Kharif Ellwood Ivey recalls salivating over a recipe he saw online a few years back. The write-up came with a photo of a chocolate cake bathed in frosting, and Ivey could almost taste its piping-hot goodness. If he could only smell it, too, he mused, he'd have the whole experience -- minus the calories. The idea for Trisenx was born, recalls Ivey, CEO of the company founded in 1999.
The Savannah (Ga.) outfit's new gadget, called the Scent Dome, lets people sniff products sold online, as well as concoct and e-mail their own scent creations, ranging from pleasant to gross (essense of body gas, skunk, and even dinosaur dung). Using a different software package, the 5-1/2-inch-tall gadget, which attaches to the PC, can help children learn the alphabet: For letter A, a child might get a whiff of apple.
And adults can use the $369 contraption, which went on sale on Apr. 15, to play the world's first scented online video games: Utah-based Dimension's Edge is about to release a new virtual basketball game that, when coupled with Scent Dome, will reward players with whiffs of popcorn or hot dogs when they score points.
FADING PERFUME SALES. Such products have companies, including giants such as Procter & Gamble (PG), sniffing money to be made. As the idea grows in popularity, scent could become an integral part of everything from high-tech jewelry to smell-enhanced clothes and homes. Consider the slew of scented gadgets already hitting the market. Scented watches, reeking of smells such as cigar smoke, are brisk sellers on EverythingSmells.com. An alarm clock from retailer Hammacher Schlemmer emits whiffs of coffee to wake you up in the morning, and eBay (EBAY) is filled with cell-phone face plates with smells such as blueberry and chocolate.
This high-tech sniff movement is being fueled in part by the global $14 billion fragrances industry's search for growth. As people increasingly embrace casual wear at the office or work at home, demand for fine perfumes -- accounting for 42% of the U.S. fragrances market -- has fallen, says Terry Molnar, executive director of Sense of Smell Institute in New York. Fragrance makers have found that tech-savvy consumers may turn up their noses at scented candles, but they like high-tech fragrant drapes, music players, and smell-enhanced Web experiences. "[Scent] can give them a sense of comfort and security," says Molnar.
Some products have become instant hits. P&G recently sold its 1 millionth scent player, introduced in August and available for around $24.99 in Wal-Mart (WMT), Target (TGT), and many grocery chains. Sales of special disks, to be inserted into the device and containing five fragrances each, have already surpassed 4 million units.
HARD ROCK, SOFT SCENT. The scent player is such a blockbuster success that P&G is looking to eventually release a gadget that plays scents as well as songs, says John Sebastian, brand manager for the Scentstories product line. To pave the way, Scentstories has already collaborated with singer Shania Twain on a fragrance disk, which has no music tracks. Entitled "Shania's Wishes for Spring," it features odors like daffodils and citrus.
Scent-enabled DVD players aren't out of the question, either. The Trisenx technology is being used on a just-released CD by artist Zinny J Zan. When a certain music video from the CD is viewed on a computer equipped with the Scent Dome, listeners can not only watch Zan walk through a flowers-filled meadow but also smell lavender and potpourri.
In a similar vein, British fashion designer Jenny Tillotson has created prototypes of brooches whose sensors use body changes to detect when their wearers are stressed and trigger the release of a puff of lavender scent to help calm their users down. The jewelry also has wireless connectivity, so the brooches can be automatically shut off when their owners enter scent-free zones. Tillotson, currently looking for financial backers with hopes of commercializing her products in 2006, is also developing scent-imparting "smart clothes." Their embedded sensors can utilize body changes to recognize when one is, say, in a bad mood, or frightened, and release a scent that brings the wearer back to equilibrium.
WISTERIA WING. That may sound too Jetsons-like to be true, but much of the technology to make it happen already exists. For instance, scents powerhouse International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) has recently developed a method for embedding microcapsules filled with smells and moisturizers into fabrics, which it hopes will soon be used in gym clothes, hosiery, drapes, and even carpets. The tiny capsules, which are invisible to the eye, burst when rubbed. If a drape made with this special fabric is pulled aside, the movement will trigger an infusion of fresh-air smell, and the drapes won't smell musty. The best part: The microcapsules can last through up to 30 washes, says Shibani Mohindra, global commercial director for textiles for IFF in London.
Scents also can help create moods within homes and offices. Already, hotels such as Las Vegas' Bellagio pump certain scents into their lobbies so guests -- it's hoped -- consider their hotels the next time they encounter the smell. Now, British architect Usman Haque is developing ways to set up vertical and horizontal columns of smells that will help people remember which wing of a building they're in, or to create a romantic atmosphere in a corner of a room. A directional fan sends a scent in a certain direction, while an air extractor, similar to the one above your stove but noiseless, stops it at a set boundary.
"Forty years ago, lighting design in architecture was a novelty," Haque says. "This sort of work [with smells] is kind of at the same stage as lighting was 40 years ago. Now, lighting is a crucial part of design."
COST SAVERS? Some high-tech smell devices could even change the way department stores sell perfume. In January, Seattle-based Impart Technology, which provides mirrors with liquid-crystal displays to upscale stores such as Cartier and Neiman Marcus (NMG-A), unveiled its first scented video mirror. Whenever a customer walks within three feet of the mirror, the device -- equipped with a motion detector -- expels a puff of perfume while also showing a video clip promoting the product.
The mirror, expected to hit the market by Christmas, costs $1,500. However, it makes financial sense in the long term, says Laird Laabes, president of Impart. After all, it could be used to replace models offering perfume samples in stores who make up to $30 an hour.
As such devices find their uses, other companies are bound to jump into this market. A laptop that smells like pizza? A car seat that smells factory-fresh forever? With a whiff of money toward the bottom line, why not? Kharif is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in Portland, Ore.