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Hoping to Pass a Web Smell Test

Developers of Scent Technology Think Users Will Want to Click and Sniff


SAVANNAH, Ga. — First came scratch-and-sniff marketing. So is it any wonder that in this era of regular technology upgrades, Ellwood G. Ivey Jr. wants you to click and smell or, if you're so inclined, click and taste.

Ivey's company, TriSenx, has obtained a patent for technology that uses a desktop printer-like device to produce smells based on data programmed into a Web page--essentially allowing a user to download a smell or taste from the Internet.

The scent technology, which several companies have been developing in various permutations, works by mixing several base chemicals that emit the desired smell. The result: A rose is a rose, even when its scent is a digitalized simulation delivered through the Net.

Like an overachieving science fair entrant, Ivey relishes the opportunity to demonstrate. TriSenx's chairman and chief executive leaps to his computer and launches the Windows-based application. He loads the company's Web page--"Get ready, because the future is so close you can taste it"--and clicks to the demo section.

First up, a strawberry. A sheet of gold adhesive paper slides into the FirstSENX machine and emerges with the imprimatur of a strawberry.

"Here you go. Smell this," he offers.

It smells like a strawberry. He prints another and licks it. Tastes like it, too, he says. Next he prints a cup of cappuccino, which he says tastes like the real thing, and then a perfume that has a rather harsh aroma.

The smells are adhered to a fiber card-stock paper and, in coming months, to a thin wafer that would allow people to taste a particular flavor.

Ivey anticipates a day when smells become as common as the audio already found on innumerable personal and commercial Web pages.

It wasn't that long ago when naysayers had plenty of criticisms concerning sound on the Web, Ivey said. But not everyone is so sure the audio analogy works--at least right now.

If "they can drive the cost down to where it comes bundled with your new computer, then it might become popular," said Ullas Naik, an e-commerce analyst with FAC Equities in Boston. "But if it's going to be a couple of hundred bucks, I'd be hard-pressed to see who's going to go out and buy a smell generator."

But for the longer term, five years or more, online scent could become popular if Web designers and computer makers push it, Naik said.

TriSenx's smells come from water-based chemicals, and all are generic, "to keep it simple," Ivey said. The device can simulate the interior odor of a new car. But it cannot reproduce the precise aroma of, for example, a 2000 Nissan Altima.

"We're not into the protein level of molecule modeling. We think that will run into a problem later when it comes to proprietary issues, and it gets expensive," he said. "It's very, very cumbersome. We believe in being as simple as possible."

TriSenx's $398 FirstSENX device started shipping last week. Ivey said the company has received about 50 orders so far.

Several other firms hope to develop the field of online smell into the next big thing.

DigiScents Inc., based in Oakland, is working on a box it calls iSmell, a device that reads a digital scent file from a Web site, creates a smell from a "palette" of 128 chemicals stored in a cartridge, and then wafts it into the air with a small fan.

"People almost expect technology to take us to this next immersive level," DigiScents spokesman David Libby said. "Immersion is huge."

Libby says the company anticipates a not-too-distant day when watching a movie comes with not only theater-quality sound but smells distinct to the scenes.

"Imagine watching 'The Wizard of Oz' and you smell the poppies as they're walking through the poppy field," he said., a suburban Dallas company, has a device called Pinoke that dispenses smells coinciding with a player's action in a video game. A South Korean enterprise also has launched a product that enables smell for video games.

But where the others see hard-core video gamers as the key to making online smell a success, Ivey believes business marketing applications are the way to go.

Three fragrance makers have licensed the technology for use in store kiosks.

For instance, a digital camera will be able to take a person's picture and bring it up on a computer monitor that will show the user what a particular makeup would look like. Instead of paper strips with fragrances, the technology will allow merchants to combine a variety of cosmetics--perfumes, lipsticks, blush and mascara--at a kiosk, Ivey said.

Candy and cookie companies also have expressed interest in using it for samples, he said.

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