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The Smell of Success

By Christopher Kemp · March 8th, 2001 · Science & Technology
Joel Lloyd Bellenson wants to turn us all into "scentographers." And he wants to do it using something called an iSmell device, coupled with technology that digitizes and transmits smells directly to your computer. More importantly, he wants us all to be scentographers by the end of the year.

The iSmell device from DigiScents Inc., is a small speaker-sized gadget that attaches to a computer and emits various smelly vapors into the user's personal space. The device will release thousands, maybe even millions, of different specific smells on digital command.

For instance, users will go to a "scent-enabled Web portal" and use their mouse to click on an icon representing, say, bananas, or roses or maybe chocolate. Seconds later, the chosen scent will be released by the iSmell device and dispersed by a small fan hidden inside.

"People crave interaction," says Bellenson, co-founder and CEO of DigiScents Inc., in Oakland, CA. "They crave the feeling of being somewhere."

The different smells start life as files of digitized information that can then be interpreted by software that instructs the iSmell device on which oils to release, in what combination and at what ratio to one another. Almost like a color printer, the basic iSmell device will use a cartridge containing 64 naturally based fragrant oils to produce different scents. Oils can be released singly, Bellenson says, but by mixing them in certain combinations, many more than the basic 64 scents can be produced.

The iSmell device is designed to release smells to a distance of up to 24 to 30 inches, aided by the silent internal fan.

"We've geared this towards a personal experience," Bellenson says.

Bellenson worked as a research scientist before forming DigiScents Inc., with co-founder Dexster Smith.

"I went to Stanford," says Bellenson, "and I ran the biomolecular core facility there before I started my first company."

That company was Doubletwist, a bioinformatics company he also co-founded with Smith in 1991. After retiring in 1998, Bellenson and Smith decided to develop a system that could be integrated with the Internet to deliver smells to its users.

DigiScents Inc. was incorporated soon after, in February 1999. Not too long after that, Bellenson and Smith coined the terms "scentography," "scentertainment" and, well, you get the picture.

All Bellenson and Smith have to do now is try to decode the other smells they want to reproduce, first splitting apart and identifying each molecular component of an odor and then methodically rebuilding it using the 64 basic scents included in the iSmell scent cartridge. In much the same way as a painter mixes the colors blue and red to make purple, Bellenson and Smith will mix together different oils, in differing quantities, to produce complex scents.

So far, they have only decoded a few hundred smells, says Bellenson. But his team is working on more odors, unraveling their complex structure, breaking apart exotic compounds, aromatic benzene rings and hydrogen bonds. Bellenson expects to have many more smells figured out by the time he launches the iSmell device later this year.

"We have the benefit of standing on top of a long history of the fragrance industry," Bellenson says. "We have, for example, Elizabeth Johnson, who was the head of product development for Bath & Body Works."

Local consumer giant Procter & Gamble is also involved with product development, as are researchers at Columbia University, Cornell University, the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and Doubletwist, Bellenson's first company.

Bellenson says companies that have licensed the iSmell technology from DigiScents will be able to provide users with scent samples of their products through icons on their Web sites. Companies such as fragrance manufacturers and online florists will benefit from licensing the system, he says. Last December, two of the world's largest fragrance companies, Givaudan and ICI-owned Quest, invested undisclosed sums of money into DigiScents.

The iSmell technology also can be embedded in video games, with certain scenes, actions or events releasing an accompanying smell from the iSmell device.

"The scents that we're looking at, even for games, are not just violence and motor-oil," Bellenson says.

Many of the scents will represent whole environments, such as caves or forests, and will be used extensively in role-playing games.

DVDs will benefit from the iSmell device also, with digital smell files being added to the visual and audio information already on the disc. Users will also have the option of adding more smell files if they wish.

"We will be providing the ability for the users to create their own content," Bellenson says.

Smells have already been specially produced for scenes in The Wizard of Oz and, according to Bellenson, some of them are disturbing and hard to place.

"We've created a scent for the witch and the monkey when they were spying on Dorothy," he says. "There are a few demographics that we really hit hard. The hardcore gamers, they say, amount to five million people in the U.S. A pretty sizeable audience right there."

Researchers at DigiScents also are trying to make sense of the complex relationship between aromas, genes and how our brain interprets smell in a new branch of science called "aromagenomics." By better understanding how olfactory receptors in the brain bind to aromatic molecules, Bellenson hopes his attempts to mimic familiar complex smells will be more successful.

The iSmell device attaches to the serial or USB port of a personal computer and plugs into a standard electrical outlet. The technology will be launched by the end of the year, Bellenson says, and each iSmell device should cost less than $200.

"We haven't announced an official date," he says. "We're certainly hoping to make quite a splash."

Until then, Bellenson and his team continue to frantically decode more smells; teasing apart their molecular structure, to repackage them in the iSmell scent cartridge and broadcast them to a computer near you.



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