NTT Becomes a Smell-o-Phone Company

Will aroma advertising pass the smell test?

1 January 2008—If you thought the art of communication had reached its zenith in multimedia technology’s ability to grab the attention of our eyes and ears through text, video, and sound, think again. Japan’s NTT Communications Corp., of Tokyo, is busy developing its Kaori Tsushin, or Fragrance Communications, as a way to pull our noses into the equation. The telecom and network services company has come up with an Internet-linked fragrance system that can be used to generate a wide variety of scents on demand with the aim of heightening experiences, influencing moods, and maybe opening wallets.

In searching out potential business applications, NTT is testing the technology in stores, hotels, and cinemas, and last year it began selling a personal version of the technology to consumers at its online store. Its latest business-to-business experiment is taking place in an underground shopping mall beneath Tokyo Station. In a 10-week trial that recently ended, the company installed an aroma-emitting digital signage unit at the entrance to a Kirin City beer hall, one of a chain of pubs. The idea is to see what effect the release of fragrances has on mall visitors, compared with the times when no fragrances are emitted.

The signage unit essentially consists of a liquid crystal display monitor and a fragrance dispenser hooked to a computer connected to the Internet. The dispenser holds three types of fragrant oils enclosed in a plastic container. The fragrances can be released into the air separately or together to create mixtures of scents according to instructions sent over the Internet.

The signage monitor displays appealing images of frothy golden beer in tall glasses that alternate with video clips of tropical island scenes and bikini-clad women. At certain times of the day, fragrance ”recipes” are delivered via the Internet to the dispenser, instructing it to release certain fragrances meant to influence passersby. At lunchtime a mixture of lemon and orange fragrances is released and wafted out to potential customers over an area of 300 cubic meters with the aid of a small fan placed below the dispenser. In the evening a particular kind of lime fragrance is released.

”The mixture of lemon and orange refreshes you,” says Shunichi Hamada, deputy manager of NTT’s Future Communications Section. ”In the evening, when you might be feeling tired, the scent of lime can help put you in a good mood.” The hope is that mall visitors looking for a place to eat and drink will be attracted by the images and the fragrance and perhaps decide to enter the beer hall.

The choice of fragrances, according to Hamada, is based on research conducted by a Japanese partner specializing in the olfactory business that imports the Aroscent fragrance diffuser used in the experiment. The device, tailored for the trial, is supplied by Air Aroma International Pty. Ltd., a leading supplier of such devices, in Cheltenham, Australia.

NTT started development of its experiments with scent more than three years ago when it was looking for a way to expand its telecom and networking services. The first instance of its use was in December 2004 when the company hooked up an Aromageur—a small sphere-shaped fragrance dispenser for rooms and personal use—to a PC used for telling fortunes at an Internet café. The type of fragrance released would depend on the fortune being delivered.

More intriguing are the trials conducted in movie theaters. In April last year a cinema in Tokyo and another in Osaka were chosen to enhance the experience of sections of the moviegoers watching the film The New World, by releasing various scents during key scenes in the movie. One Aromageur was judged to cover an area of 25 m 3, the floor space taken up by 33 seats. Each cinema used five of these dispensers tied together in a local area network.

NTT isn’t revealing much about the results, except to note that ”during the two-week trial, the cinemas were booked full,” says Hamada. ”That was not the case during the nontrial period. We also tested the technology again this year in a cinema in Tokyo showing Perfume: The Story of a Murderer .”

Other ongoing field trials incorporating the Aromageur (which holds six kinds of fragrant oils) include one at the Imperial Hotel in Osaka. The hotel has made five ”fragrance rooms” available to guests, at a cost of US $290 a night. A large Tokyo bookstore is also testing out the system on its first floor after undergoing major renovations, and it has seen sales rise almost 5 percent since the trial began, according to Hamada. It is not clear, though, how much this increase is due to the emitting of orange and lavender fragrances or other factors, such as the renovation.

In an experiment conducted in-house by NTT, it made chocolates available at a reception area and saw the sampling rate almost double during the times a vanilla fragrance was released. 

The company has also begun selling the Aromageur together with a set of six natural fragrant oils at its online store for around $450. Some 80 different oil-based fragrances, both natural and synthetically produced, are available, including lavender, peppermint, grapefruit, chocolate, and sea breeze. Users can download recipes for a variety of occasions, times, seasons, and months to their PCs from an NTT Communications Web site, then upload them to the Aromageur via a USB or Ethernet connection. Users can also create their own recipes via the PC.

Whether NTT has sniffed out a new commercial opportunity or this attempt to engage our olfactory sense will fail the smell test is too early to judge. But as new trials and applications are tried out and more data gathered, Hamada says he is sure the technology ”will take communications to a new level in content richness, compared to today’s communications, which only offers images and sounds.”

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