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Smells — coming soon to a theater near you?

Molly Wood May 1, 2013
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Maybe you saw the Google Nose April Fool’s prank, where users of a pretend new application clicked on “wet dog” or “Egyptian tomb” and sniffed their laptops to find out what these things smell like. Well new smell technology is not a joke — or not only a joke.

Last week at the Crossing Europe film festival in the Austrian town of Linz, for example, an artist named Wolfgang Georgsdorf premiered a smell movie with an important distinction: It works. In NO(I)SE, an experimental film, colors flicker on a screen and a series of aromas float past your nose. Viewers got a whiff of wet earth, mushrooms, dung, shirt, chocolate, sweat, fresh cut grass, hay, lemon cake, rotting fish, ocean, and diesel fuel.

The smells are blown in and out of the theater by a smell projector, called Smeller 2.0, that occupies the whole of the back of the room. Georgsdorf finished it last year. The $260,000 projector has 64 smell source chambers all of which send a scent to the front of the machine, where a wide pipe blows fresh air through the theater and out of a window hidden behind the screen.

SMELLER 2.0, Making Of Scene (setting smeller daisy) from Wolfgang Georgsdorf on Vimeo.

It makes “a smooth, gentle cake of air moving slowly through the room, transporting little compartments of smells,” says Georgsdorf.

There’s been smell at the movies longer than there’s been sound — since the scent of roses was wafted into a theater where people were watching newsreel footage of Pasadena’s Rose Parade in 1906. The difficulty up until now has been that smells linger. You end up with a sick-making mix of smells in the air and maybe a pile of scratch cards on the floor.

Geza Schoen, a German perfumer who has created fragrances for some famous French fashion houses, created the smells for NO(I)SE.

Thanks to Smeller, he says, “you can have different smells in a row, changing after a few seconds and they don’t over-layer. That’s important.”

It means you can use them to tell stories. Smells, says Georgsdorf, take us back to the time when being able to smell the tiger when it was still a way off was a matter of life and death.

Round the back of Smeller, Georgsdorf’s assistant, Claudio Thamm, shows me the smell source chambers he’s filling ahead of another movie performance. They include “predator” and “death”. The latter, you guessed it, smells really bad. For Hollywood, maybe one day, maybe one day soon, these could be powerful story-telling tools.

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