Smell-O-Vision Is Finally Almost Here

About the size of an Amazon Echo Dot, a gadget known as Cyrano could popularize the idea of programmable, digital scent.

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Apr 28 2016, 5:41pm

Lilac is among Cyrano's first scents. Image: Susanne Nilsson/Flickr

Last night, at the Rubin Museum in New York, I sat in a small, packed auditorium and smelled a movie.

The movie, an animated short called Alex in Wonderland, showed a delightful little character, Alex, traipsing through a flower-filled forest and catching some sun on the beach. As these images flashed before me, my fellow attendees and I passed around a small device, about the size of an Amazon Echo Dot, that emitted scents that corresponded with the on-screen action. As Alex walked through the forest you could smell flowers, and as beachgoers slathered on suntan lotion you quickly smelled summertime.

Cyrano and its accompanying iPhone app. Image: Vapor Communications

"OK, this has potential," I thought to myself, remembering my passion for Yankee Candle. Judging by the reaction of my fellow attendees, I wasn't the only one who felt that way.

"Light, sound: You can walk into a room, turn on the lights, and they go on," David Edwards, the co-founder of Cyrano parent company Vapor Communications, told Motherboard ahead of the movie premiere. "Scent is mass: If you walk into a room and turn on a scent, it doesn't quite go as fast as light does, and once it's there it's kind of impossible to go away from it."

Cyrano, which is available now from Vapor's website in limited quantities for $150 (a wider release is expected later this year), is controlled via Bluetooth with an iPhone app. You pick the scent you want from the app, including coconut, guava, and lavender, and seconds later little fans inside the device begin to whir, spreading your chosen scent in a small radius. (You can control how "loud" the scents are using the app.) Inside the device is a cartridge pack that can create 11 scents (additional cartridge packs are in the works).

But not everyone is a recovering scented candle nerd like me. (I once owned the domain somanycandles.tv as part of a short-lived idea to review scented candles on YouTube!) How people who've never bought a scented candle in their life respond to Edwards' gadget is less clear.

According to Edwards, who's a professor at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the idea behind Cyrano was to "digitize scent" similar to how we've digitized sound and sight, without the need for the heavy wax and potentially dangerous flame of your typical Yankee Candle. "The consequence of that is we can terrify or love or remember or be excited" by movies, books, and long car rides in a way that we previously couldn't, Edwards said at the premiere, highlighting the power of scent to trigger emotions—an aspect that immediately interested the director of Alex in Wonderland.

"A film is all about emotions," Maya Sanbar, the film's director, said at the premiere. "When David came up with this idea of scent, it was like a lightbulb came on and it was like, 'I really want to try this and experiment with film.'"

But for Cyrano to truly take off, Edwards will need to convince the public that his little device isn't merely a pointless gimmick. He thinks he's on the right track.

"Our sails have absolutely been supported by the food industry, the fragrance industry, the health industry—all of which have products and services that can be better delivered should scent be digitized," he said. "They've just been waiting for a platform that consumers actually use."