The sweet smell of failure

To be filed under ‘just because we can doesn’t mean we should’.

The failed quest to bring smells to the internet
In November of 2001, the smell of success began to fade for Joel Bellenson.

His invention, the iSmell, promised to bring scent to the internet. He’d developed cutting-edge sensory technology, assembled a dream-team of Fortune 500 execs, and raised $20m. Video game companies, Hollywood studios, and internet giants were lining up for partnerships.

But he’d forgotten to ask a crucial question: Did anyone actually want this?

It turned out nobody wanted iSmell, in the same way that no one wanted AromaRama and Smell-O-Vision in the 60s, but that’s not stopping people from still trying with this.

The oPhone is currently trying to convince the world it needs scent-based text messages, and the Cyrano (a “digital scent speaker”) aims to create “smell tracks” with names like “Thai Beach Vacation,” which can be played to the aromas of coconut and suntan lotion.

“Right now, nobody’s waking up at 3 a.m. saying, ‘I really want to send a scent message,’ ” oPhone founder, David Edwards, told The New Yorker. “But one day they will.”

Nah they won’t. It’s a sad, silly story, but the guy behind iSmell still stands by his invention.

Today, Bellenson’s a bit sour looking back on Digiscents’ failure. He insists the idea isn’t dead, but has merely “just been injured.”

“People just wanted to dance on our grave because we were so ridiculous,” he defends. “They were just afraid of our greatness.”

Nearly 20 years after the downfall of the iSmell, that greatness isn’t so apparent. The device is omnipresent on nearly every “worst inventions of all time” list and is universally heralded as a technological feat with no practical application — a paradigm of the dot-com bubble’s ugly bravado.

Author: Terry Madeley

I work with student data and enjoy reading about art and design, data, education and technology.