Digital olfaction brings fragrance systems into the 21st century

Movie theaters don’t really smell of popcorn. The smell of the new car at the dealership is not real. The office bathroom wasn’t just cleaned. Every space is designed to smell that with commercial scent systems. Hotels, offices, retail and multi-family properties have manipulated the very air we breathe to create a sense of place for years. While our sense of smell is one of the most powerful senses, it is also the least understood. Digital olfaction does for your nose what cameras have done for our eyes, using code to replicate scents, ushering in a new paradigm of scent control and replication that may soon be a mainstay of PropTech.

The smell can affect us in ways we don’t yet understand. Scent Marketing Institute study shows that the smell of fresh baked goods can make someone more likely to buy a home. Notes of apple and cucumber can make a room appear larger than it actually is, smoke makes the space appear smaller. The smell of peppermint can keep people awake, lavender has been shown to help sleep. In virtually every industry, scent is used as a way to differentiate products, spaces and locations. The global perfume industry in all its forms is estimated at $ 71 billion. The problem is, the collective scientific understanding of our sense of smell is only just beginning.

The science behind sight, taste, touch and sound are light years beyond smell. Most cameras perform better than human eyes, able to see spectra of light invisible to us. Audio systems can hear wavelengths that our ears cannot hear. Robots can now use an artificial sense of touch to carefully peel a grape. Some artificial flavors are tastier than the real ones. Similar efforts to capture olfactory sensory experiences have failed because the physics behind our brain’s scent is not as straightforward as the other senses. Sight is photons, sound is compressed air. The perfume is quite another thing. About 400 types of receptors can recognize millions of smells and combine them to create an overall odor. Christmas morning smells like fir, brewing coffee, burning logs, wrapping paper, and baking cinnamon buns all at once. Artificial olfactory devices may be able to recognize a few scents, but combining them and finding connections between them like our brains do has proven difficult. Scientists cannot agree on exactly how odor is processed in our brains.

A new generation of startups pursuing digital olfaction are taking odor detection and replication to the next level by designing devices that use the same processes as the nose itself. Koniku, a biotechnology company specializing in neurotechnology, has designed a small purple bubble-like device that uses living cells to detect odors. About the size of a flower head, living cells are suspended inside a solution that mimics the membrane layer of our nasal cavity called the mucosa. Aryballe’s device uses peptides grafted onto silicon wafers which react to the presence of certain odors. Both devices record which reactions are triggered in which order to interpret the scent.

“What the camera did for vision we are now doing for smell,” Koniku founder Osh Agabi told Bloomberg Businessweek. Applications for commercial buildings are already starting. Koniku has entered into an agreement with adult drink giant AB InBev to use the Konikore device to measure the aroma notes of the brewer’s product. A partnership with Airbus brings the device to airports to help detect explosive devices. Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. is working with Koniku to develop a method for detecting traces of cannabis smoke during traffic checks.

It’s not just digital detection. The digital transmission and replication of perfumes is also progressing. Scientists are working to codify certain smells so that they can be sent through electronics for efficient replication. Reproducing perfumes is difficult because no one has mastered a method of diffusion. Odors mix, gas and liquid odors often contaminate each other, and it is difficult to control the environment which already naturally contains its own odors. At best, reproducing odors for commercial purposes relies on controlling most other smells to create a unique odor, like popcorn, cookies, or a freshly cleaned toilet.

“Perfume is not like color, where we can do the RGB or CMYK color models and reproduce whatever we want,” the founder of the nonprofit Institute for Art and Olfaction told the BBC, Saskia Wilson-Brown. “Each smell has its own components.”

The nose knows

Historical efforts to reproduce smells on demand date back thousands of years. The ancient Greeks developed a method using doves soaked in scented oils to impart pleasant scents at a festival as they flap their wings. Incense and censers have been used in churches for religious ceremonies for centuries. Having something or a place that always has a special smell is the breadth of the industry. Perfume on demand has proven to be an elusive goal. Scenovision debuted at the 1939 World’s Fair, using pipes attached to spectator chairs that gave off certain smells in sync with the images on the screen. The technology and the films using it were commercial failures. Like the odor detection industry, the replication industry has failed to make bold claims for decades. All of that could finally change.

To get around the delivery issues of carbonated and liquid scents, products like The Aroma Shooter use a solid state scent material that can quickly deploy various scents without unintentional mixing. Scent Machina uses a smartphone app connected to a diffuser, allowing users to choose between four types of scents on demand. The gaming industry strives to add scent experiences to the world of virtual reality, developing user-worn necklaces that release target scents during simulations.

So where does odor detection and replication leave in the commercial real estate industry? It is important to remember that one of the most important and oldest forms of PropTech relies on odor detection; smoke detector. What if our buildings could detect more than smoke or recreate a specific smell on demand?

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There are many practical applications for the detection of odors in buildings. Devices could be installed in toilets, kitchens and storage areas to automatically alert facility staff when something needs to be cleaned or thrown away. The technology can be used in mechanical rooms to detect burnt fuses, flaming wiring, leaks and gas build-up. With further development, digital olfaction could also be used to assess the health of visitors.

Perfume and sensitivity

Digital olfaction that creates on-demand scents that can go beyond using a pleasant scent for marketing or the illusion of cleanliness. Scents like lavender and orange can help calm nerves, which is useful in high-stress office environments. The devices could soon allow each employee to tailor their desk to their own scent. Instead of aerosol sprays, the new technology allows perfumes to be less irritating in public places as well. Some people are very sensitive to odors, digital odor detection and odor reproduction can help identify and neutralize some of the odors in the office that cause conflict.

Digital olfaction has the potential to revolutionize the most ubiquitous form of technology we have in our buildings: smoke detectors. With digital olfaction, smoke detectors can detect pollutants and problems that are much more dangerous than smoke while still better detecting the smoke itself. Today’s smoke detectors rely on either ionization or photoelectric detection, each one operates differently and detects some fumes better than others, creating dramatic differences in response times. No alarm is better than the other, according to the US Fire Administration, but the agency recommends dual-sensor smoke detectors. While digital scent devices are unlikely to replace low-cost smoke detectors, technology will undoubtedly improve them. Better detection will prevent false alarms of overcooked food or steam and improve early detection of real threats.

Money is pouring into digital olfaction by the tens of millions. Aryballe has attracted investments and partnerships from billion dollar companies like Hyundai, Samsung and International Flavors & Fragrances. Aromyx has raised nearly $ 19 million since 2015. The global electronic noses market is expected to grow from $ 17.8 million to $ 34.8 million, an increase of nearly 200% in the next 5 years, according to Mordor Intelligence. Hindering this growth are established methods. Most odor detectors are only designed to identify a few critical scents, a fully digital nose is not required. Scent diffusion itself is a crowded market for both commercial and consumer applications, utilizing diffusers, sprays, candles, and core systems. In some places and for some cultures, we just don’t want a smell, no matter how nice. Using digital olfaction to compete with other detection and replication methods will require further development and production, but the potential is there. Smell may scientifically be the black sheep of our sensory family, but its importance is unquestionable.

Commercial applications for the detection and replication of artificial sight and sound were hard to imagine for the pioneers who first developed these technologies, but now it’s hard to imagine life without them. Cameras are expensive too, but the information they give homeowners about what’s going on in spaces is invaluable. Buildings today are teeming with them, but they first had to be invented before commercial applications became apparent. The digital olfaction that creates a camera for smell has some of the same potentials. Air quality monitoring has grown in leaps and bounds amid an airborne virus pandemic. Monitoring a space’s smell may be more important to some than air quality because of the strength with which odor is linked to memory and perception. It’s time for the real estate industry to wake up and feel the opportunity.


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