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Scented emails: gimmick or game changer?

A visitor smells roses on a stand in the Great Pavilion at the 2014 Chelsea Flower Show

For decades, inventors have been trying to capitalize on the power of scent – the way smelling lilacs can immediately transport you to your mother’s garden, while pine reminds you of that long-past camping trip. This week, Harvard Professor David Edwards unveiled what he says is the first scented email.

Colleagues in France used the free app oSnap to send Edwards an email with a photo tagged with a handful of pre-encoded smells that were supposed to suggest champagne, macaron, and chocolate. The smells wafted out a table-top device called an oPhone, which has two mini smokestacks to release the scented vapor.

The first caveat is that the system didn’t capture a smell to transmit, but rather tried to approximate the smell by drawing on a library of scents, like “tropical” or “creamy sour.” And while the device definitely released a scent, it wasn’t easily identifiable. Rather, it had a tangy, artificial aroma.

Edwards says the technology is still a work in progress. He’ll be refining both the library of scents and the oPhone distribution system.

Moreover, he hopes his technology will be used for more than just email. He wants companies to be able to create scents for specific products – to use scents to sell.

“It could be coffee, it could be wine, it could be chocolate,” he says. “It could be a trip to the ocean.”

He’s already working with a café chain in Paris to use smells to help customers select a coffee. Eventually, he could imagine doctors or hospitals using the technology.

“The idea is, as we get more virtual, how can we create more real experiences to get people to buy or relive something?” says Lisa Bodell, CEO of FutureThink, a consulting firm focused on innovation.

That could mean augmenting virtual reality with scents to make a digital experience feel more authentic, or smelling  a “new car smell” while browsing an online dealership.

The idea of transmitting scents digitally may seem wild, says Bodell, but crazy ideas can become the next big thing depending on how they’re executed.

For smell, execution has been a stumbling block in the past, like smell-o-vision in the 1960s, or more recently when a greeting card company tried to introduce scented cards.

“The problem wasn’t getting [scent] into a card,” she says. “The problem was at the display. There were so many scents competing with each other that it didn’t work. That’s an example of an execution problem.”

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