Smell you later.

It’s no secret that smell is a powerful marketing tool.  It’s no accident that people just happen to be baking chocolate chip cookies when showing a property to prospective buyers, nor that casinos smell like oranges.

We, along with our partners, have tried several times to add smell to digital signage.  It’s not the holy grail, but it would enhance our digital delivery to capture attention via scent.  The problem is that we just can’t get it right.

At least it’s not a new problem.  In the 1950s, AromaRama pumped scent into cinema air conditioning, while the rival Smell-O-Vision (I am not making these up) had its own dedicated system of pipes.  Both failed miserably thanks to noisy machinery or patchy odors.  Worst of all was that each aroma lingered too long and mixed with the next, blending into  a noxious stench by the closing credits.  More recent attempts to make scent devices, such as the iSmell USB device from Digiscents in 2000 also fell short.

Don’t get me wrong – there are some good systems out there, but none that meet the simplicity, reliability and cost-target that we need to associate with digital signage.  However, that may be about to change.  According to Kenichi Okada of Keio University in Tokyo and colleagues, who will present their work at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Multimedia conference in Florence, Italy, existing ink-et printre technology could generate evocative aromas to complement images on a computer or TV.

In the most common type of ink-jet, a pulse of current heats a coil of wire, creating bubbles that force a small volume of ink down a tube and onto the page at high speed.  The Keio team use the same hardware to squirt scent.  Working with printer manufacturer Canon, they converted the guts of an off-the-shelf printer into what they call an olfactory display, capable of rapidly switching between four aromas.  They found that a standard Canon ink-jet can eject as little as a picoliter of scent droplets in 0.7 milliseconds.  That is too little to smell, but pulses 100 milliseconds long produced perceivable aromas of lemon, vanilla, lavender, apple, cinnamon, grapefruit and mint.  Better still, a 100-millisecond ink-jet burst dissipates fast, at least in the team’s small-scale experiment.  After an average of two human breaths it has gone, allowing a different smell to be activated.

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