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The Fresh Smell of App: A Different Kind of Wonderful

The fresh smell of App A different kind of wonderful

Pop Secret

Eugene Gan - published on 01/03/14

The Catholic Church had the whole media sensory thing down pat for centuries. Modern media? Bleh... not even close.

The world’s first scented mobile app has been released, and you might get a whiff of one this Christmas season. Pop Secrets, the microwave popcorn maker and now creators of the Poptopia mobile game, has just launched a scent-emitting dongle that takes its mobile app to new olfactory heights. The dongle plugs into the audio-out port (headphone jack) of your iPhone or iPod Touch and spritzes a little popcorn scent into the air around you whenever you swipe the virtual butter in their Poptopia game. Not to worry, though – depending on the gameplay, it should take 500–1,000 swipes for the dongle to run out of aromatic happiness. But if you’re already experiencing carpal tunnel from all that swiping, you might be out of luck, as that sweet and salty popcorn-scented dongle refill hasn’t been announced just yet.

Actually, it’s quite ingenious in its simplicity. Whenever you swipe the virtual butter in-game, a set frequency is sent to the audio-out port. This in turn activates the scent-emitters in the dongle. It’s a similar technology to the ones you’re already familiar with: air-fresheners that spritz some sweet-smelling goodness at intervals you set or when you pass by. The Pop Secrets dongle is currently being treated as a rare commodity (the marketing buzzword for this is “collectibles,” and on eBay it’s described as “Collectible Mobile Tech Accessory”). Only three limited edition versions of the dongle are being auctioned off on eBay. The first one sold for $315, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the American Red Cross. The current dongle’s bid stands at $280 as I write this (and it keeps changing faster than I can write this article!) Of course, you could save yourself a whole lot of trouble and money if you bought yourself a 40-cent bag of microwavable popcorn, then set it right next to you as you play. Just make sure you don’t swipe your precious iOS device screen with greasy, buttery fingers.

Pop Secrets touts: “It’s time you let your nose have as much fun as your eyes, ears, and thumbs do when playing mobile games.” But even if you don’t have the dongle, the game itself is still playable. The Poptopia app is free and can be downloaded here. The game has you frantically popping glowing corn kernels as fast as you can by tapping on them to have them fly into the “The Almighty Mouth,” which is basically a huge disembodied Cheshire Cat-like mouth hanging in the cartoon-verse sky of Poptopia.

It all smells of a curious advertising gimmick by Pop Secrets, of course, but it works. In fact, it’s right on the nose, you might say, and comes on the heels of other sensory gimmicks that may soon become commonplace in the media world. I won’t be surprised if other manufacturers jump on the bandwagon and come up with scents like Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew, or Doritos – products that seem to culturally go hand-in-hand with video gaming (and contribute to our nation’s obesity problem). I bet perfume and cologne companies aren’t too far behind, either. Can you already smell the scents that a diverse array of familiar franchises (I’ll refrain from naming names) will put out: coffee, latte, apple pie, baked bread, freshly washed linen… or open a greeting card and have flower scents waft up wistfully into the noses and hearts of the recipient?

In fact, the idea itself isn’t new. iSmell-like devices plugged into your computer were in the news just a decade ago, with the intent that users would get a whiff of a scent when they visited a website or clicked on a product. Going further back to 1929, a theater in New York City sprayed perfume from the ceiling during the showing of The Broadway Melody. Then in the 1960s, it was Smell-O-Matic, Scent-O-Vision, Aroma-Scope, and AromaRama as theaters tried to incorporate smell emitters that timed puffs of scents with what was going on in the movie. In fact, Walt Disney is said to have toyed with the idea for the showing of Fantasia. But problems persisted. The most basic was trying to clean out the scents from the theaters before the next showing. Another was the difficulty of trying to synchronize the timing of what was happening on screen with the scents hitting audiences’ noses. Yet another is the known sensitivity, or lack thereof, of the human olfactory system. Unlike the canine nose, the human nose has a difficult time transitioning from one complex scent to the next. To clearly perceive and distinguish between smells, the molecules of one scent needs to be cleared out first before the next is received otherwise the smells would mix and the result is a muddled sensation. These same problems will face current media companies playing with this technology.

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Still, smells have the power to elicit memories and stimulate emotions, and so the quest to find a way to effectively combine smells with media will go on. It makes sense, too, since we experience a fuller immersion and engagement in the media the more – and the greater the number of – our senses are involved. The media already engages us visually and auditorially.  You can read about how Disney is experimenting with letting you transmit a secret message simply by touching someone’s ear here. Others have been testing out devices that make you feel like you’re interacting with objects in virtual space via a tactile glove. The opportunities for manufacturing are enormous, but so are the possibilities for the home consumer. Imagine being able to literally touch your files and folders, or the new methods of kinesthetic learning made possible, or the reality of manipulating and building 3D virtual objects and then simply printing them out on your already-available 3D printer. With smell in the works, what’s next? Taste?

Some of you might already be thinking of the Star Trek holodeck as the summit of such sensorial media experiences, but there’s another very ancient – and ever new – experience as close as the nearest Catholic Church: the Mass. You see the Crucifix before you, the Tabernacle, and the Communion of Saints (the cloud of witnesses; Hebrews 12:1) in the form of statues, pictures and stained glass windows. You hear about the “smells and bells” of the liturgy. They’re not just there for nothing; the sweet fragrance of incense is mentioned myriad times in Scripture, and at the altar, it rises before God with our prayers (Revelations 8:4). The bells peal at different points in the liturgy: the epiclesis – the invocation when the priest extends his hands over the chalice right before the Consecration – and when the he raises the Host and the Chalice containing Our Lord’s blood (at some Masses the servers would ring the bell when the priest drinks from the Chalice as well). The bells have historical significance when the Mass was in Latin and the priest faced the tabernacle (and spoke the words quietly so much so that microphones, if they existed then, would not have been helpful). In those circumstances, the bells had a practical purpose in signaling to the congregation the critical moments about to take place: Pay Attention! Pay Attention! Even our Catholic calisthen
ics – all that standing, sitting, kneeling, bowing, genuflecting, prostrating – means something. Our body too, in all its varied postures, give praise to Our Heavenly Father, who is so worthy of our love and takes delight in His children. Sight, sound, smell, touch! And of course, there’s taste, really, the most important in the sense that we see and taste and eat the source and summit of our faith, Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself (John 6:53)!

The Catholic Church had the whole media sensory thing down pat for centuries. Modern media? Bleh… not even close. God knows us and our senses – he made us after all. So the next time you’re at Mass, consider how you’re directing the gift of all your senses to rightly loving our God. Have a very Blessed Christmas season!

Dr. Eugene Gan is faculty associate of the Veritas Center and Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States. His book, Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media is grounded in Scripture and magisterial documents, and is a handbook and practical guide for understanding and engaging media in meaningful and healthy ways in daily life.

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