Chemical Engineering Entertainment Food & Drink

SCENTsory Entertainment: The Engineering Behind Smell-o-vision

About the Author: Joanna Tan

Joanna Tan is a fifth year architecture student.

The technology for creating scents in television is in the near future. Researchers from the University of California San Diego are currently working with engineers at Samsung to develop a device that makes the smell-o-vision –smell with television– a reality. This compact device will be an odor-generating component for TVs and will even be small enough for cell phones. The device has yet to be named but will provide as many as ten thousand odors for television programs and websites. The technology of combining visual and audio media alongside the sense of smell has been attempted before, but the newest research by the UCSD and Samsung collaboration is bringing us closer to a sensory enhanced reality.


Oooh! I can’t wait till we get Smell-o-Vision so you can smell this at home! [2]
– Emeril Lagasse
We have all experienced that familiar moment on cooking shows when the chef takes out a piping hot lasagna from the oven. The camera pans and soon reveals layers and layers of melted cheese, glistening tomato sauce, and steaming hot pasta (Fig. 1). At this point, most viewers would be salivating and their stomachs grumble for a taste. Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse often teases his own audience about how technology such as the smell-o-vision will soon be available to a television set near you. And in fact, it is.
Scent has been used in entertainment since ancient Greek history [3]. However, it was only in 1960 when Hans Laube, a specialist in the science of odor, changed entertainment history and created a scent-filled film called ‘The Scent of Mystery’. In this thrilling murder mystery film, thirty different scents were released into a movie theater’s seats, all synchronized with the film to indicate certain plot points. An example from the film included the scent of pipe tobacco, which was used to uniquely identify one of the characters.
Unfortunately, the technology used was poor and did not always work as intended. Chief among these problems were distracting hissing noises that the scent-releasing apparatus made, a lag in receiving the scents, and the unequal distribution of the smells throughout the theater [3]. But with technological advances over fifty years later, we can now improve the upon Laube’s work.

Figure 1: The scent of lasagna coming to a television near you.


Although seemingly counterintuitive, smell actually preceded the use of sound in the movie industry. As early as 1906, a theater in Forest City, Pennsylvania used cotton wool dipped in rose oil and an electric fan during a newsreel about the Rose Bowl game. A few decades later in 1929, a theater in Boston, Massachusetts used Lilac oil its ventilation system during a showing of a musical film titled Lilac Time. The musical was inspired by the sensory experience of Lilac and sprayed perfume from the ceiling during its premiere in New York. More experiments of smell cinema in the 1940s included the showing of ‘Sea Hawk’, which used aromas such as tar from a sailing ship in order to set the mood for the scene. A drama titled ‘Boom Town’, used scent to indicate and distinguish characters such as tobacco for Clark Gable, pine for Spencer Tracy, and perfume for Hedy Lamarr [3].

Hans Laub has had many achievements in the field of osmology, the study of odors. One of his achievements was a method he created for cleaning the air in large-scale auditoriums, which became widely used throughout Europe. Following his success, he discovered that the reverse of his aforementioned discovery could have its benefits as well. The reversal method would become one that delivered scents into the theaters in order to create a sensory experience. In this scent delivery process, chemicals were transmitted through a network of pipes found in each of the seats in the theater. The design in the individual seats closely regulated the timing and amount of aroma released [3].
The design used in Scent of Mystery called for a device Laube named “smell brain”. The “smell brain” was a belt that held an assortment of containers filled with different perfumes. The belt operated around a motorized supply reel that rolled in sync with the movie. Markers on the belt cued the “smell brain” to release the scents in an arranged order. When it was time for a release of an aroma, needles pierced membranes on the bottom of the container to emit a scent. Electric fans then dispersed the product by pumping the scents through tubing that led to ventilation systems under each seat. The belt could then be reused after it was rewound and containers refilled [3]. Improvements were later made to clear the smell palettes of its users with a simple release of a neutralizing chemical in between scents.
As the television set became more available to the average household, Laube implemented techniques similar to the smart belt into the development of a television version. In the design, he produced a small, inexpensive gadget that produced 500 different scents. However, the invention never successfully became available to the public and has not since been brought up again, until recently [3].

How it works

The sense of smell has captured the interest of those in the entertainment business for a long time. It is after all, the entertainment business’ goal to engage your senses through visuals, audio and now in this case, smell. The olfactory neurons in the nasal cavity detect chemical components of each scent. Meanwhile, the olfactory bulb located in your brain identifies nerve impulses to distinguish the differences in say smelling bacon and a fresh bouquet of roses. This scent identifying part of your brain has the capacity to sense and recognize ten thousand different scents. Scents stimulate physiological responses prior to the realization of identifying the smell. Because of this, scents often times trigger memories or certain emotions.
The researchers at University of San Diego and the engineers at Samsung are hoping to utilize the human olfactory system and deliver smells to your television set. Their goal is to create a device that will miniaturize and digitize an odor-on-demand system that can be controlled and be available in a wide variety of scents. They plan to engineer a system made of odor pixels controlled by the television show. The odor pixels will be provided in a compact box containing a 100×100 matrix of scents and thin metal wires which would then be attached to a television set [1].
An X-Y matrix system is used in order to minimize the amount of circuitry and reduce the design down to 200 controllers (100 on the X-axis and 100 on the Y-axis). These controllers will in turn select and activate each of the ten thousand aromas. The scents will be made up of a liquid solution and form an odorous gas when heated. Each of the solutions will be kept in a silicone elastomer container that will be non-toxic and non-flammable. An electrical current is sent through the lead wires to heat the container of the chosen scent. Heating will occur at any one of the ten thousand intersections of the matrix of liquid solutions. As a result, the heat will then build pressure, and create a tiny hole in an elastomer to open to release an odor measured by the detector [4]. The release of scent would be controlled by the television shows of the future, which would pre-program the release odors at specific instances.


In addition to scent in television and movies, engineers have also utilized similar technology in other realms. This includes the theme park industry, which used scent technology to enhance their customers’ experience. Disney has used scent technology in their attraction, It’s Tough to Be a Bug, to introduce an unpleasant odor when the stink bug comes on screen. Similarly, the same technology is used in Mickey’s Philharmagic to produce delicious pie aromas. To set the ambience in Soarin’ Over California, Disney once again uses the aromas of orange blossom, pine forest and sea air as the audience soars over the sceneries, while Heimlich’s Chew Chew Train drips watermelon scented water and takes the rider through an animal cracker scented box. And in the Monsters, Inc. ride, users are taken through a ginger scented sushi house.
Interactive scents have also been used in the fashion industry. Scented fashion similarly releases scents in response to environmental factors [6]. For example, The Second Skin dress by Jenny Tillotson opts to use smell technology to promote wellness through aromatherapy. The dress is designed to give off smell according to emotion. When the user is feeling tension, a calming scent such as lavender will be emitted to counteract stress.
Another exploration is digital scents through the Internet. Engineers in Oakland, California have developed a digital scent device, called the iSmell. This device intends to transmit digitized smells through your computer by USB connection. The technology used in iSmell is coded and digitized into a small file and can be opened via email [5]. Comparable to the iSmell, engineers at TriSenx, in Savannah, Georgia, are taking it one step beyond being able to download a scent. They are creating the SENX machine which prints smell and taste. Here, the company has developed a patented technology that allows printing of smell onto a thick fiber sheet which allows users to taste specific flavors by licking the paper coated with the smell [5]. The SENX machine is similar to a printer, but will instead produce smells based on data programmed into a web page. SENX, which stands for Sensory Enhanced Net eXperience, uses disposable fragrance cartridges with 20 chambers holding different scents. The 20 chambers allows for the production of over thousands of smells [5].

Figure 2: There are a variety of scents that can be produced and smelled individually.


The future of scent television is near and will provide many benefits for its users. After many attempts to bring scent to popular entertainment, the technology is finally here to make it readily available at home. The use of scent in conjunction with the television will enhance the users’ entertainment experience. Those who are visually or hearing impaired can finally enjoy other aspects of their home television set. When the time comes, we will finally be able to smell and experience the dishes of celebrity chefs from the comforts of our homes.


    • [1] E. Smalley. “Playing on TVs of the future: Smell-O-Vision?” CNET. Internet:​/8301-17938_105-2007​1783-1/playing-on-tv​s-of-the-future-smel​l-o-vision/, Jun. 16, 2011, [Sept. 12, 2012].
    • [2] J. Ponie. “Will Smell-O-Vision Replace Television?” Time Magazine. Internet:​time/magazine/articl​e/0,9171,997257,00.h​tml, Jun. 19 2000, [Sept. 12, 2012].
    • [3] P. J. Kiger, M. J. Smith. “The Lingering Reek of “Smell-O-Vision.” In70mm. Internet:​m/news/2006/oops/ind​ex.htm, May 22, 2006, [Sept. 12, 2012].
    • [4] “Coming to TV Screens of the Future: A Sense of Smell.” USCD Jacobs. Internet: http://www.jacobssch​​ws_releases/release.​sfe?id=1082, Jun. 14, 2011, [Sept.12, 2012].
    • [5] “How Internet Odors Will Work.” How Stuff Works. Internet: http://www.howstuffw​​or1.htm, Jan. 5, 2001. [Sept. 12, 2012].
    • [6] J. Tillotson. “Smart Second Skin.” Smart Second Skin. Internet: http://www.smartseco​​tsecondskindress.htm​, [Sept. 12, 2012].

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