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Scratch, sniff, watch: from Smell-O-Vision to smelling screens to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo!

Updated on July 17, 2013
Streetwise nose by Tobyotter on Flickr
Streetwise nose by Tobyotter on Flickr

I knew it was a gimmick, but I bought the US Weekly all the same. Sitting on my couch with a friend, we began to watch the season premiere of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo on TLC. A circle appeared on the bottom right-hand of the screen, then a number. I pulled out my card, lightly scratched the corresponding number, and took a whiff.

"Oh, it's just baby powder," I said, relieved it wasn't a dirty diaper.

As the episode continued, more numbers popped on the screen, with more smells to match: the choking odor of gasoline, the light scent of bacon, the sugar-sweet smell of fake popcorn. I was rolling with the punches until the engine-dust smell of go-karts, which was a bit too much for my nose.

For those contemplating buying a copy of the magazine to try for yourself on repeats: knock yourself out. I don't know if it was $3.99 worth of fun, but it was clever and I love a good gimmick.

TV bloggers and media moguls keeping up with the televised lives of the erstwhile Boo Boo family were less than impressed by the gimmick, but what can I say? I'm easily amused. Not only that, but the use of scent cards with the TV broadcast was a clever throwback to earlier attempts at combining video with smell--and a look at possible technologies to come.


Celluloid by any other name would smell just as sweet...

When movies were still black and white, even before the advent of talkies, movie producers tried to introduce smells into their films. The practice of adding an olfactory dimension to media goes back to the early 1900s. On magazine, Film Daily, claimed that a theater manager named Samuel Rothafel would soak rags in rose oil and place them in front of a fan so the faint bouquet of roses would waft through the air during Rose Bowl newsreels.

From that point on, different theaters tried to introduce smells during different films, usually by spraying perfume during showings. Unfortunately, because the smells would mix and linger and the application was so haphazard, the idea was a flop.

The idea to incorporate smell into film wouldn't dissipate, however. In fact, Disney initially wanted to add smell into Fantasia, adding even more sensual texture to the film. Although the deal fell through, there was an undercurrent of interest.

Theater overhead by BWChicago on Flickr
Theater overhead by BWChicago on Flickr

Introducing Smell-O-Vision

Hans Laube, a Swiss inventor, devised a system of pipes that could directly connect with theater audiences, allowing for precisely timed applications of odor throughout a film. He introduced his idea as "Scentovision" to the world at the 1939 New York World's Fair. He returned to his homeland in Europe soon after.

After getting into a bit of legal trouble regarding the patent of his invention, he renamed the system "Smell-O-Vision" and got to work designed the smellscapes of the only film to use Smell-O-Vision in theaters: Scent of Mystery.

There were logistical problems with Laube's invention. For example, even though the pipes were now scents connected to a "smell brain" that would release and fan smells into the audience in time with the film, the costs of refitting a theater with such a system were tremendous. For some smaller theaters, costs for renovations were around a million dollars--nearly $8 million today.

Introducing the competitor, AromaRama

Right before Scent of Mystery was to be released, another smell-enhanced movie showed up in theaters using scent technology known as AromaRama. This movie, Behind the Great Wall, was a travel documentary set to utilize up to a hundred smells throughout the film.

Reviewers didn't know what to think. Some found the smells cloying and distracting. Others found the idea clever and announced that so-called "smellies" would have a bright future ahead of them. Even though most reviewers praised the film itself, the technically poor AromaRama system and synthetic smells began to damn Scent of Mystery before it was even released.

Doggy nose by Johnny Adams
Doggy nose by Johnny Adams

Smell-O-Vision and Odorama

The critic's concerns would turn out to be right. The system for introducing smells into the theater didn't work as planned. Some people would get a whiff of something after the object had disappeared off-screen. Others wouldn't smell anything, sniffing loudly at the air. Even the system itself hissed in a distracting way.

Despite the flaws, the idea of Smell-O-Vision has remained. In the '80s, schlock autor John Waters introduced a film with scratch-and-sniff cards. This movie, Polyester, used smell to its advantage, even deliberately using the wrong scent on a card to shock viewers. He called the system "Odorama."

Scratch-and-sniff cards require effort on the part of the movie-goer, but the idea does solve many of the problems inherent in the air-based scent systems before it. For example, smells don't linger. The smell can be timed to the video. That said, the idea didn't catch on, and Odorama fell by the wayside.

From Rugrats to Honey Boo Boo

One of the Rugrats movies, Rugrats Go Wild!, used scratch-and-sniff Odorama cards. Little cards were passed out in theaters, letting kids smell scents from the movie. John Waters was upset at the use of his system's name, but the trademark had lapsed, and Rugrats producers claimed the idea was an homage to his work.

Another kid's movie, a film in the Spy Kids franchise, released scratch-and-sniff cards as part of a 3D movie promotion. This additional layer of interactivity with the film was dubbed "4D Aroma-Scope."

One of the latest introductions of scratch-and-sniff technology has been with an entirely new medium: television. A partnership between TLC and entertainment rag US Weekly led to scratch-and-sniff cards being released to TV-watchers across the nation. The Here Comes Honey Boo Boo! premiere was tied to these scent cards, adding a completely new dimension to TV.

As with most of the scent-based tech for media, the response was mixed, but the idea has merit given the amount of food television on TV. Wouldn't it be wonderful to smell a roast broiling in the oven or a chocolate cake as it cools in Buddy's Hoboken bakery?

Scent technology, from now until

People haven't been complacent with smell technology. Although scratch-and-sniff cards are a lo-fi solution to the problems found in both the Smell-O-Vision and AromaRama systems, as technology gets more advanced, people want to create true smell-o-vision for the world at large.

One idea was called iSmell. It was conceived in late 1999 and early 2000. With it's scent palette, it could create hundreds of scents on demand, wafting up from a USB device. The idea was that smells could be attached to e-mails or embedded in web sites, but in reality, the device couldn't mix smells well, and the end result was a huge, stinky mess.

Other companies have been working on incorporating scent technology into consumer electronics, especially 3D TV sets. A Japanese group created a prototype smelling screen that included low-power fans to help move scents from particular parts of the screen. They unveiled a prototype in early 2013, but it could only handle one scent at a time.

The search for the perfect smell-o-vision continues, but for now, the occasional lo-fi foray into scratch-and-sniff cards is fine by me.

Odorous class via UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences on Flickr
Odorous class via UCL Mathematical and Physical Sciences on Flickr

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