Like 3-D before it, Smell-O-Vision began life as a fifties novelty, dreamt up by movie execs who didn’t quite have the technology at their disposal to make it work as intended. Hissing noises distracted audiences, and scents didn’t reach all parts of the theater until well after the corresponding on-screen action. Voted one of the ‘Top 100 Worst Ideas of All Time’ by Time magazine readers in 2000, Smell-O-Vision definitely stunk up the place – just not in the way its creators hoped.
Cut to 2014, and a handful of canny app developers may finally have solved the challenges of transmitting odors to remote audiences. The latest is called oSnap, and it’s about to launch at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, with a scented message sent across the Atlantic from Paris to NYC. Clearly, this is no flash in the pan.
Created by a team of Harvard University students and their professor, the iPhone app takes photos and sends accompanying scents to the recipient. Users snap shots and tag the photo with a choice of scent notes. Got a picture of your nightly hot chocolate? Send some cocoa bean aromas with it. Showing off your posh new case of wine? Add some subtle notes of fermented grape to your message to give your recipients a fuller experience.
Of course, smell-o-vision is not an inbuilt piece of hardware in any smartphone just yet. To use oSnap, recipients must purchase a scent-transmitter called an oPhone before they can smell a thing. That might sound like quite a catch right now, but the developers are raising funds to mass-produce the oPhone for home use. The planned price tag is $199 – not a small amount of money, but depending on how realistic the smells are, it could take off.
The oPhone and oSnap are not the first modern technologies to harness the power of scent. The Scentee app uses scent cartridges that plug into smartphones and emit luxurious smells like ribs and buttered potatoes. Based on the understanding that aroma has a huge influence on the eating experience, the app aims to improve a bland dish with twelve fancy olfactory options including strawberry, cinnamon roll and even curry.