Scent—The Next Narrative?

We spend a lot of time thinking about what the future of designing experiences might look like, but what will the future smell like? It’s one of our most acute senses as a human being—we can detect one trillion differing scents and can readily recognize about 10,000. We know that scent is the strongest trigger for memory, yet olfaction is sometimes ignored when developing experiences. Why?

Brands have been scenting retail, hospitality and entertainment environments for years because, simply put, it makes the experience more memorable. Plentiful research on the subject of scent marketing shows that scented retail brand experiences can dramatically increase sales and brand recognition in ways that seem to defy logic, but completely make sense at the same time, since olfactory bulb sensory input links to the limbic system before it registers as a conscious thought. Scent sparks an emotional response before it triggers a cognitive one.

Take Disneyland’s “Soarin’ Over California” ride for example; the not-quite-five-minute-long simulated hang glider flight uses movement and four scents (citrus, pine, sagebrush and ocean mist) to augment the ultra-high-definition aerial footage, and has become a cultural phenomenon—spurring not one, but at least two companies to produce “Soarin’ Over California” themed scented candles so “now, your house can smell like Disneyland” and you can “relive the excitement.” Soarin’ is not a thrilling ride, yet it has consistently been a favorite.

Technology has caught up in the scented experience arena, where not so long ago, heated oils were literally making a “hot mess” of HVAC systems. Now, many commercial aroma-diffusion companies use cold air nebulization to disperse aromatic molecules into a fine mist without the use of alcohols, water or chemical solvents, which can have harsh undertones or leave behind hard-to-clean residue.


For Keith Kelsen and Roger Sanford, the future is connected—and scented. Kelsen and Sanford put their backgrounds in the digital signage, entertainment and agency worlds to good use as the CEO and CMO of Inhalió, a Silicon Valley startup on a mission to “Bring the world of scent online and proliferate the connected scent platform and OS to improve lives.” First there was radio, then television; they believe that the next big wave in experiencing narrative content is through scent.

The concept of the scent narrative and the first pass at developing the technology to do so was born out of a 2012 digital signage-based project for herb and spice company McCormick’s concept store, “McCormick World of Flavors,” for which the client wanted a totally unique branded experience. The end product was a highly engaging interactive digital kiosk that included “Guess That Spice,” a game where participants were provided a scent and asked to indicate the spice, with the reward being a purchase discount.

Since then, the Inhalió team has teamed up with companies like Sephora and Estee Lauder to deliver scent experiences. Most recently, they’ve partnered with a large corporation in the fragrance industry in France and are working on projects that range from intelligent scent sensors to nausea-reducing scents for VR and autonomous vehicle use.

 Their platform is cloud-based, so it can be controlled using an app on a smart phone and the special cartridges, deployment methods and algorithms work to solve common issues like crossover and scent blindness.

From your perspective, why do you feel that taking scent into account in experience design is important?

Roger Sanford: On a personal level, I’ve worked on a lot of very creative projects over the years and the sense that was forgotten was scent, yet it’s so primary.

It’s the Proustian effect—he smelled the madeleine cookie and was transported back to his grandmother’s house. Scent is like time travel, a mnemonic device that is unrivaled in the human experience. Scent makes experiences more memorable. That’s why I believe we’re going to see scent used more and more—it is the next big thing in experiences.

Have you seen “the cloud installation” in Paris? Recently, Cartier unveiled a new perfume by creating a scent cloud inside a two-story glass box outside the Palais de Tokyo. You ascend and descend this spiral staircase through a cloud of scent with a view of Paris all around you.

What are some of examples of ways you can see scent enhancing visual experience moving forward?

Keith Kelson: We’re on the precipice of a huge windfall of experiences around scent. It’s just the beginning, it’s going to change our culture.

In retail applications, it’s going to evolve much like digital signage has. You can’t put screens everywhere, otherwise there’s sensory overload. For example, we have small “scent talkers” that can sit on a store shelf next to product and deliver an individual experience that doesn’t fill the space. There’s so much more that can be done on a smaller scale, from small seat-based scenting in a theater, or attached to a VR headset. We did an AR project with Microsoft Hololens with an attached module, where entering areas of the space triggered a scent to match the visual layering in the environment.

You can imagine a future where using our connected platform and the internet of things, you could enter your house, adjust the lighting and perhaps the scent. It’s the same in automotive or museums; as I walk through certain areas with my phone it could trigger a scent experience.

So, hypothetically, if you downloaded the museum’s app, opted in for the scent experience and then walked through, your phone could trigger a response from modules?

Keith Kelson: That’s right. It could be done using WiFi, BLE or Bluetooth modules. If I was designing for a museum experience, I would take into account the lighting, sound and scent in addition to the visuals. It’s all related to this connected world we’re living in.


It seems that opportunities to use scent in museums and technology-driven exhibitions and experiences are present, so we asked Jim Cortina, principal and director of development, and Joseph Cortina, founder and creative director of Cortina Productions (McLean, Va.), who incorporated scent in their recent project, “The Siege of Yorktown 4D Theater” at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, for their thoughts on the subject.

Why did you end up including scent in the Siege Theater?

Jim Cortina: I think to a certain degree, there’s a stigma about it—that scent is a gimmick—but in actuality, when these type of ‘4D effects’ are applied appropriately, they have a very powerful impact on users, enhancing in a way that doesn’t at all take away from the seriousness of the content.

In the Siege Theater, we used the 4D effects of wind, smoke, scent and ButtKickers (low frequency audio that emit vibration) in a way to subtly immerse the viewer, not to elicit a reaction. We used the scent of sea-smell during the naval battle scene, gunpowder during cannon barrages, coffee during camp scenes with the troops—they feel completely natural and add a compelling layer to the story.

Do you think that this will become more prevalent with the use of AR and VR and technology-driven experiences in museums?

Jim Cortina: Absolutely. I think scent is going to be increasingly incorporated into experiences and I can’t imagine that we won’t find other avenues for it.

One of the qualms people have about scenting museum environments is in reference to introducing something into the air around artifacts, but with the changes in technology it has truly become a benign effect.

Most importantly, when we’ve incorporated scent, the content sticks with viewers and they have increased retention.

Joseph Cortina: I totally agree. In thematic and scenic gallery environments, scent is a natural addition—whether you’re recreating an old ship or a rainforest—it’s a natural extension that makes viewers feel like they are really there.


We can’t predict the future but from the looks of things, it’ll be scented.