Things I Wrote For My Dissertation and Then Cut: Technologies of Smell

When I started my first dissertation chapter, I thought it was going to be about smell and digital media. Over the past few months, smell has dropped out entirely and I doubt it’s going to come back in the way I first imagined. I haven’t posted on here in a good while, so I figured why not drop this probably ill-advised fragment on misguided smell technologies and gimmicks on the blog? Better here than filed away, I suppose.

In 2007, a software company going by the name of “ScenTeck Technologies” issued a press release extolling the virtues of their new downloadable program “Scratch-n-Sniff Pro.” The program, so the press release claims, works with a proprietary computer chip to translate auditory waves into a “unique vibrating tone” that the brain would recognize “not as a sound, but a scent.”1 Scratch-n-Sniff Pro users would then be able to smell their websites, which ScenTeck’s press released promises would revolutionize web browsing. If these claims aren’t already fantastic enough to raise readers’ eyebrows, the press release’s publication date is a dead giveaway: 1 April. For extra measure, the text liberally quotes ScenTeck’s “chief scientist,” “Dr. Aarp Hriful.”

Google Nose Beta

Google Nose Beta

The history of smell and technical media features as many gags and jokes as it does serious attempts to mediate odor. Google played a similar April Fool’s Day trick in 2013 when it announced its “Nose Beta” platform, a “search engine for smell.”2 In a lushly produced promotional video, Google’s “product engineers,” presumably actors, noted that despite Google’s claimed ability to index “most of human knowledge,” smell was still “an important part of the search experience [they] had overlooked.” Even genuine attempts to merge smell with computing come across as patently ridiculous. In the late 1990’s, software engineers Joel Lloyd Bellenson and Dexster Smith used the profits from their prior biotechnology startup to found “DigiScents,” a company whose sole focus was smell technologies. Their main product was called—against all better judgement—the “iSmell.” The iSmell was a nose-shaped peripheral that mixed and transmitted scents on the fly in response to a user’s actions. According to breathless tech press hype in magazines such as Wired and PC World, the iSmell did work, even if it offered a limited range of smells.3 The challenge was convincing users that they wanted to smell the internet, and that they wanted to do so with such a comically shaped and named device. Given that the iSmell never reached the consumer market and DigiScents folded in the early 2000’s, evidently they didn’t.

DigiScent iSmell

The DigiScent iSmell

Whether real or imaginary, these products reveal a set of aesthetic anxieties and preoccupations about the computational mediation of smell. For all of them, smell is an unclaimed sensory terrain not yet available to computer simulation. Moreover, computation offers an opportunity to heighten what has otherwise been humankind’s most limited sense. As Bellenson says in a 1999 Wired article hyping the iSmell, “We’re giving back to humanity our ability to communicate using scent!”4 Merging smell and computation is then not just about extending the computer’s regime into all aspects of sensation, but also hinges on the broader idea that, through computer mediation, humanity can unlock new possibilities for sensation and communication. In practice, these dreams for smell’s valiant return to the center of lived experience seem comic, puerile, or unnecessary. Smell technologies are jokes, not inventions. On the one hand, this seems a natural consequence of our contemporary regime of deodorization and the general devaluation of smell. But on the other hand, computational smell technologies encounter a specific kind of disregard that other kinds of non-computational smell technologies, from aromatherapy candles to perfumes, don’t seem to face. Only when smell meets the screen does it become a gimmick.

Gimmicks are useful frames for interrogating how smell technologies index tensions at the intersection of technological innovation, the capitalist marketplace, and socially embodied practices of sensation. Literary theorist Sianne Ngai argues that these tensions emerge from a specific aesthetic ambivalence that technical gimmicks provoke in users: “[a gimmick] is a form we marvel at and distrust, admire and disdain, whose affective intensity for us increases precisely because of this ambivalence.” The gimmick is comic and irritating in equal measure, something we both laugh and roll our eyes at. The gimmick, Ngai argues, repeats “the simplest promise of all technology,” to save the labor of doing something. This labor might be the laundry (a washing machine) or entertainment (the hackneyed joke form). However, unlike other kinds of “useful” technologies, gimmicks are aesthetically and materially cheap, useful only to a point, irritating us in their oscillation between promise and disappointment.5 In this way, gimmicks are aesthetic forms particular to our contemporary modes of capitalist production, which perpetually seek new terrain to exploit and subordinate to regimes of productivity.6 To think with gimmicks is then to think with the aesthetic and material contradictions of capitalism.

As gimmicks, smell technologies hold a repulsive fascination for us. They draw us in with the promise that our computers may (finally!) have something new to offer us by way of sensory experience, and repel us with the ultimate cheapness, sensory impoverishment, or social taboo of that experience. While they promise to incorporate new aspects of sensory desire into the experience of computing, they instead incite disgust, as if the computer had overstepped its proper material and social bounds. The creators of the iSmell were presciently aware of this tension. Marc Canter, co-founder of the multimedia company MacroMedia and a consultant on to DigiScents, notes that the iSmell’s primary challenge was aesthetic rather than technical: “I think aesthetic disclaimers will be more important [than technical ones],” he tells Wired, “You know, when PageMaker was first released, it created a lot of really ugly pages. I’ll be surprised if ten percent of the first smell output is bearable.” Why, then, would any consumer suffer through ninety percent unbearable smells as DigiScents, or any other company, developed the technology further? In a way, the iSmell’s gimmick inverts the labor-saving promise, putting affective and sensory labor on the user to acclimatize herself to a buggy and unpleasant technology in the hopes that it will one day live up to its promise. If the iSmell saves anyone’s labor, it’s that of its creators, who are saved the labor of having to come up with a better, more attractive idea for the future of computing.

Scent of Mystery

Scent of Mystery (1960)

Smell has long served as a refuge for media producers attempting to will new markets into being. In this regard, the iSmell is the most recent in a long lineage of media gimmicks responding to an anxiety about any technology’s ability to stay fresh and interesting for a mercurial consumer market. The most famous among these is Smell-O-Vision, a cinematic novelty invented by producer Mike Todd, Jr. for the 1960 premiere of the film Scent of Mystery. While not the first attempt to integrate smell with cinema—smell experiments, mostly by enterprising theater owners, dot cinema’s early history—Smell-O-Vision was the most technologically sophisticated of the bunch.7 Todd worked in collaboration with Hans Laube, a Swiss advertising executive turned “osmologist,” to develop an elaborate system of air canisters and pipeworks that the two installed in the Cinestage Theater in Chicago at a cost of around $30,000 (more than a quarter million dollars in 2019).8 Todd developed Scent of Mystery specifically to highlight Smell-O-Vision’s cinematic possibilities: the plot features Denholm Elliott and Peter Lorre teaming up to stop the murder of a mysterious American woman, an uncredited cameo by Todd’s stepmother Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor’s perfume plays a key role in the film, and various olfactory cues feature prominently in solving the mystery itself. Smell-O-Vision, unsurprisingly, was a mechanical and commercial failure. Todd ran into trouble when a competing producer, Walter Reade, Jr., rushed out a similar “Aromarama” system for his 1959 travelogue Behind the Great Wall. The Aromarama system was much less performant than Smell-O-Vision, and poor reviews of Behind the Great Wall soured audience’s tastes for further olfactory experiments. Furthermore, the Smell-O-Vision system suffered from technical glitches itself: the hissing sound of the air canisters distracted from the film; the smells took too long to permeate the theaters and then refused to leave, leading to smell confusion; and the costs to outfit even a single theater with the technology were prohibitive. Todd never experimented with Smell-O-Vision after Scent of Mystery, and the technology survives today only in theme park attractions, such as Disney’s It’s Tough to Be a Bug! and Muppet Vision 3D.

This brief foray into cinematic smell technologies was not driven by auteurist directors seeking new terrain for artistic expression, but rather movie producers and theater owners looking for a “hook” to get audiences in the door. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the movie industry faced economic pressures unprecedented during the earlier eras of the studio system. The landmark 1948 antitrust case United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. broke studio control of theater chains, introducing new dimensions of competition to the industry. Just as the film industry today bemoans the effects of home streaming on ticket sales, so too were theater owners in the 1950’s concerned about the rising competition from a new media format—television. Smell-O-Vision was then one of many novel cinematic formats designed to make the medium of the screen a draw in and of itself. Todd had experience in this practice: his father, Mike Todd, Sr. had popularized Cinerama, a massive widescreen format that anticipates today’s IMAX. In this way, Smell-O-Vision extends film historian Tom Gunning’s seminal idea of the “cinema of attractions” into new sensory terrain. For Gunning, the fascination of early cinema, especially before the 1910’s, was not narrative pleasure but rather the spectacle of the media format itself.9 Cinema promised to show things otherwise unseen (whether new industrial processes or sexual taboos) and to permit new techniques of seeing itself.10 In doing so, the cinema of attractions “expends little energy creating characters with psychological motivations or individual personality,” foregrounding instead “pleasure through an exciting spectacle—a unique event . . . that is of interest in itself.”11 To return to Ngai’s argument about the fundamental ambivalence of the gimmick, Smell-O-Vision both succeeds and fails at producing a “cinema of attractions” for olfaction. While audiences may have been drawn to its novelty, its technical failures betray the difficulty of subordinating an atmospheric and chemical sense to the kinds of bounded and discrete pleasures that the cinema otherwise provides. Rather than offering cinematic pleasure, Smell-O-Vision offers sensory disgust.

The Polyester scratch-and-sniff card, courtesy of eBay and yours truly.

Smell-O-Vision’s kitschiness inspired John Waters’ 1981 film Polyester, most notable for its “Odorama” gimmick: viewers use scratch-and-sniff cards to smell various olfactory cues. The film, a send-up of both 1950’s cinematic gimmicks and women’s exploitation films, features perennial Waters leading lady Divine as she navigates the polymorphic perversity of suburban life, from the breakdown of her marriage to an adult film theater impresario to her children’s addictions to glue and paraphilic violence. Along the way, the film treats viewers to a mostly repulsive range of scents, from natural gas to dirty shoes to chemical air fresheners (from which Divine derives her own private sexual pleasure). While openly a novelty—the film opens with a prologue featuring “Dr. Arnold Quackenshaw,” a Teutonic scientist, perhaps riffing off Hans Laube, who walks the viewers through the “groundbreaking” Odorama technology—the scratch-and-sniff format actually solves many of the technical and material problems facing a more atmospheric system such as Smell-O-Vision. Scratch-and-sniff relies on a chemical process called microencapsulation, developed by organic chemist Gale Mason at 3M in the 1960’s. Originally used for making carbon copies, microencapsulation involves inhering microscopic quantities of liquid or gas in small bubbles in another material, such as paper or cardboard. Scraping off thin layers of this material pops the bubbles, releasing the liquid or gas. As such, the smell experience is locally contained, rather than floating in the theater’s air. Theoretically, this solves Smell-O-Vision’s distracting operation and the unwanted mixture of scents. However, Polyester’s Odorama still presents two fatal problems. First, the scents themselves are cheap and tinny, sometimes but not always resembling their on-screen cues. And second, smelling ten things in succession, even over an hour and a half, physically exhausts the viewer’s nose and respiratory system. Cinematic smell can’t seem to rise above a one-to-one correspondence with onscreen objects. Meeting the discrete rhythm of cinema puts new and exhausting demands on the human body.

  1. “Software Company Announces Radical Breakthrough In Computer Scent Technology.” 2007. March 30, 2007. 

  2. Google. 2013. Introducing Google Nose. 

  3. Martin, James A. 1999. “Sniff That Web Site.” PC World. October 13, 1999. 

  4. Platt, Charles. 1999. “You’ve Got Smell!” Wired, November 1, 1999. 

  5. Ngai 481. 

  6. Ngai 471 

  7. Paterson, Mark W.D. 2006. “Digital Scratch and Virtual Sniff: Simulating Scents.” In The Smell Studies Reader, edited by Jim Drobnick, 358–67. 

  8. Turner, Christopher. 2017. “Cinematic Airs.” Cabinet, Summer 2017. 

  9. Gunning, Tom. 2006. “The Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde.” In The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, edited by Wanda Strauven, 381–88. Amsterdam UP. pp. 383 

  10. Gunning 384. 

  11. Gunning 384 

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