The sweet smells of smartphone messages

  • Sweet smell of messages
    Children interact with 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears: The Smelly Version' at the Museum of the Moving Image | Agencies
  • oPhone Duo
    The oPhone Duo, a tabletop device that can emit scents linked to metadata attached to photos on a user's iPhone or iPad | Agencies
  • BCBG Max Azria
    A scarf made for BCBG Max Azria containing a time-release chip to emit the scent of chocolate | Agencies

Back when people communicated more often through physical letters, there was a strong market for perfumed stationery. One sniff, it is said, could bring a rush of memories or longings.

Now communication is digital and instant. You can watch videos and hear voices of your loved ones. But smell? Not so much.

There are some signs that could be changing. Product developers are preparing to offer a variety of items to consumers that will allow scent to become a part of digital messaging.

This fall, the startup Vapor Communications, for example, will introduce several devices to include subtle scents with books, movies and clothing. And the company will start mass production of its oPhone Duo, a tabletop device that can emit scents based on how an iPhone photo is labeled.

Another company, Scentee, already has a scent product on the market. The product, also called Scentee, is a cartridge that plugs into a smartphone’s headphone jack. It can be set up with an app to emit a puff of fragrance when a text message or email arrives.

Companies have long tried injecting scents into the modern entertainment and messaging world. Movie theaters worked for decades on ways to make aroma part of the viewing experience. A half century ago, Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama released scents in time with the film through the theater seats or air vents.

But the smells tended to linger and become muddled with other smells. By the second act, theatergoers couldn’t tell them apart.

Vapor Communications says it has overcome that problem with a system that includes small plastic pellets with scents that are activated when air flows over them. The scent is not dispersed widely; users have to lean in close, as if sniffing a flower, to smell anything at all.

The idea is to keep the scent message as personal as possible while avoiding complaints from others in the room who object to the smell or have perfume allergies, said David Edwards, one of three founders of Vapor Communications.

“To be able to deliver scent, like iPod delivers sound, is really where we’re at,” he said. “Creating that meaningful experience that is just yours and not your neighbor’s is the goal.”

All of the products depend on a small pellet called an oChip—the “o” in the product names is for olfactory. In the oPhone, each chip contains from one to four aromas. The chips are sold in packets of eight, grouped into “families” of similar smells, called Coffee, Foodie and Memory. A person who wants to describe the smell of a pasta sauce, for example, could choose notes of tomato, rosemary and parsley, which would then command the player to position those chips so the air would flow over them, combining the scents.

Enough aromas are available, the company said, to create over 300,000 distinct smells. Each chip lasts for about 1,000 uses and costs about $2.

To receive a scent on the oPhone Duo, a tabletop receiver is necessary. The aluminum and plastic device is about the size of a shoe box. Once the oChips are inserted, the player is ready to receive a scent message.

The process for sending a scented message begins when the sender tags a picture with the oSnap iPhone app. To tag a photo, the sender selects up to eight aromas to be mixed within the receiver. Once the message is sent, the person on the receiving end can tap for the scent to be played. The app tells the receiver which scents to position over the air flow, a fan whirs and the machine emits the aroma from one of two small towers. The Duo has been available since last fall from the company’s website to people willing to take a survey and pay $650. As large-scale manufacturing begins, it will cost $350 and be available through beginning November 16.

The size of the Duo makes it most practical for home use, Edwards said. The company said it would introduce the Uno, a more portable and simpler model, in 2016. The app, oSnap, is free, but only for iPhones. It will not be available for Android users until at least 2016.

The Scentee, which has been on the market for about two years, is a much simpler product. For $70, the suggested retail price, buyers get a small white dongle that plugs into a smartphone’s headphone jack as well as three scent cartridges. The liquid fragrance cartridges are converted into aerosol by a tiny motor. They come in coffee, strawberry, lavender, rose and rosemary, and can be bought separately for $7.50 each. Each cartridge is good for about 200 sprays.

With the Scentee app, users can select the spray intervals and duration. A quick adjustment in settings can make Scentee puff out an aroma when a text or email arrives, or when a post is “liked” on Facebook. The scent is determined by which cartridge the person receiving the message has clipped onto the phone at that moment.

One of the first uses for Scentee technology was a promotion for Oscar Mayer, in which winners in a lottery could get a cartridge of bacon scent that would be paired with an alarm clock app to “wake up and smell the bacon.” Perfume makers also have expressed interest in using the device to advertise new fragrances, said David Haenel, Scentee’s US distributor.

Vapor Communications is also pursuing commercial possibilities. One of the group’s new developments, a time-release scent chip, has been inserted into a fashion scarf as part of a promotion for Magnum Ice Cream and the clothing company BCBG Max Azria. That product will be available from July 23 to 26, free with a purchase of $300 or more from the clothing retailer. The company said it would announce the availability of an oBracelet this fall that is expected to carry a removable scent chip. The price is yet to be determined.

The inventors of the oPhone have also experimented with other kinds of media. Their first oBook, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears: The Smelly Version,” is at the Museum of the Moving Image in the New York City borough of Queens through July 26. Visitors can read the digital book and tap to smell the forest.

“In our digital world, smell is something that has been forgotten,” said Don Zereski, a co-founder of Vapor Communications. “This makes it possible to bring it back.”

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