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This Web Scheme Is a Stinker

November 02, 2000|Dave Wilson | dave.wilson@latimes.com

A lot of otherwise rational people working in cyberspace believe the universe began in 1992. They think that because the Internet is a new medium destined to change the world, history doesn't matter. They're wrong.

I recently examined a device that--and I'm not making this up--can deliver smells over the Internet. DigiScents, an Oakland company, has actually built a doodad that plugs into a computer and emits a wide variety of fragrances by automatically combining about 100 different oils. Incredibly, DigiScents is not alone in this endeavor. Other companies are developing similar technologies.

With the aid of the DigiScents device, Web pages for the candy store can smell something like chocolate, romantic e-mail can carry a whiff of rose blossoms and that gloriously violent video game can produce the smell of cordite in the morning. The odoriferous box is expected to cost at least $80, but the final price hasn't been set yet.

Can you imagine the fun your friendly neighborhood hacker will have if zillions of these stink machines are soon sitting next to computers throughout the world? Could the adolescent joy that comes from breaking wind be compounded by the newfound power to cut loose via remote control? O brave new world.

Suddenly, a Candygram seems kind of . . . classy.

You might think the DigiScents project sounds like a joke. And it is, sort of. About five years ago, a company calling itself RealAroma announced a very similar device. Using the RealAroma Drive--designed to plug into your computer--and RATML (that stands for Real Aroma Text Markup Language) you could build a Web page that let people smell whatever you wanted them to smell.

Several news organizations breathlessly reported this latest example of scientific progress. The rest of us had a good laugh, because the RealAroma announcement was a prank. (If you want to see just how transparent a jest this was, you can examine the original"announcement" at http://realaroma.com).

But I can assure you the brains behind DigiScents are quite serious about the commercial possibilities of their product. As the company's president, Dexster Smith, said to me last week at Internet World in New York, "it is funny, but it's not a joke."

Smith says the company has raised about $10 million in funding to develop the product and has some substantial partners--including Procter & Gamble. He expects DigiScents will release the device next year.

He's convinced that there's going to be a huge demand for this kind of thing. I'd say if history is any guide, consumers aren't going to be especially interested.

Yes, history. I know the Internet is the big new thing, but people are pretty much the same as they always have been. And this is not, strangely enough, the first time somebody has decided that there is a huge unmet need for a technology that lets us not just see and hear some exotic land but smell it as well.

In 1960, we saw the debut of Smell-O-Vision in the film "Scent of Mystery." During screenings of the movie, various odors--coffee, garlic, and that pine-forest smell that doesn't remind us of the woods so much as a freshly scrubbed lavatory--were piped into the theater at appropriate moments. Let me reiterate: I am not making anything up here. Elizabeth Taylor was in this movie.

How did audiences take to this bold technological advance? I'll just sum up with an advertising line from "Scent of Mystery": "First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927)! Now they smell!"

At about the same time, similar processes--dubbed Scentovision, AromaRama and Smellorama--debuted, intending to capitalize on what everybody assumed would be the next big movie craze. Fortunately, the craze never actually happened.

Movie theaters largely smelled of popcorn until 1981, when John Waters unveiled "Polyester." Filmed in what was dubbed Odorama, "Polyester" used scratch-and-sniff cards to let patrons get a whiff of things such as pizza and sweaty socks.

A couple of television shows also tried the scratch-and-sniff trick throughout the years but always as a gimmick, not a long-term business strategy.

And let us not forget the recent unpleasantness with perfume ads in magazines. There was a time when, before I brought Vanity Fair into my abode, I would spend a good half an hour frantically flipping through the pages, searching for scented advertisements to rip out.

These examples of olfactory assaults revolve around stuff that was forced into our hands, a free "upgrade" as part of the standard ticket price. The DigiScents system actually requires people to install a peripheral on their computers--just like speakers or a printer--that somebody is going to have to pay for.

Now, maybe a video-game company will buy a bunch of these things and include them with a howlingly bad title to spur sales. But how many people are going to rush out and buy the DigiScents device, plus refill the cartridges containing scented oils as they are emptied?

There is just no way this thing is going to take off. As the saying goes, those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it. Suffice to say that the folks at DigiScents never heard of Smell-O-Vision. But, on the Internet, nobody seems to know when an idea really stinks.

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Columnist Dave Wilson writes about technology for The Times.

Inside

* Dave Wilson answers reader questions in Tech Q&A. T11

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