First Post, First Smell

This is my first post on That’s Flawesome, if you’d like more information about me feel free to look at my bio. I contemplated a number of design concepts to address first and, well, this First Smell concept featured on the prestigious Electrolux Design Lab competition has the word “First” in it. So there you go. That’s really all the thought that needs to be put into this sort of thing, although since I’m getting paid $3 a word, I probably should try harder to find more worthy things to critique.


Looks nice, hey? If only ghost veggies of questionable coloring would float out of all my appliances…

As per the contest entry, this device is intended to use

[…] different cartridges of aromas, [and] those combine with each other. The combination is established by an application. This application offers you usual recipes but also enables you to develop your own association of smells in order to imagine new recipes.

So, you insert these cartridges, then use an application (with wireless connectivity and the latest social networking integration, no doubt) to download scent “recipes” from the internet, and to make your own. The sparse description didn’t specify exactly how many basic aroma cartridges there are, but from the below image, there look to be about six different cartridges (helpfully colored). This is further supported by the colored strips on the exterior of the device that seem to match the cartridge coloring.


Also, it’s a bad concept. At least, it’s not well thought out. I realize that some of these qualms might be based on some tenuous assumptions about First Smell; but the original creator, Julien Vignal, only saw fit to justify his design with fewer than three paragraphs of text about the entire concept. The concept which he expects to win an award for. In three paragraphs. Allow me to explain how it’s not well thought out in four main ideas.

1. You can’t just combine a handful of basic aromas to create a scent like printer inks combine to create a color. Each aroma is created by a complex set of molecules, which you can’t easily combine with other complex molecules.

From the mockups of the device, the First Smell uses six different cartridges to create the aroma of ratatouille. This strikes me as odd, considering there are around eight ingredients in that particular dish, not counting salt, spices, and the oil used to cook the vegetables (all optional, but would you really want to eat a dish completely lacking salt and oil?). But don’t take my word for it, look at the Wikipedia page for aromatic compounds. These are the chemicals responsible for a variety of scents and tastes (because flavor is heavily influenced by scent). There are at least 44 types listed, with a handful of individual chemicals responsible for different variations within each chemical type. This all adds up to a scent profile that is incredibly complex, if not terrifically difficult to compress into an affordable, dependable, appealing countertop device. And even if it progresses to that point, I still have issues with it.

Back in 2001, there was a company by the name of DigiScents that had the intention to sell scent devices for your computer that would create a variety of scents for you to download from the internet. There was another company around that time that wanted to take it a sense further with flavors, called SENX. You know DigiScents and SENX, those household names that have revolutionized the way we interact with the internet? Neither do I.

They both failed, and miserably. Google either of their names and you’ll see tech write-ups from all corners of the internet lampooning both the concept and the devices that emerged in hopes to create the equivalent to Smell-O-Vision. In fact, in a seemingly brilliant stroke of user contempt, DigiScents partnered with Real Networks’ to “make DigiScents’ ScentStream software available to its more than 115 million RealPlayer users.” In keeping with Real Networks’ standard operation, the scents likely to be delivered to Real Networks users were without either their knowledge or conscent.

2. What if a cartridge leaks?

But I have a more specific issue with the whole concept. The DigiScents device used a cartridge of 128 primary odors to generate a variety of smells for consumers. The SENX device used two cartridges, one with 20 scents and one with 40 so-called palettes. That’s considerably more than six scents, and that variety of scents must cost a pretty penny, as well as holding relatively small amounts of each scent, if the cartridge is to be easily shipped and installed. This leads to a short overall cartridge life, constantly necessitating replacement as different scent reservoirs run out.

Furthermore, consider if they leak. If a printer ink/toner cartridge leaks, you can just wipe off the residue with some rubbing alcohol and go about your day, depending on what surfaces it leaks onto. With smell, you can’t easily do that, and the relative irritation will vary quite a bit depending on how readily the aromatic chemicals break down.

Consider this carefully, because if the scent chemicals are too stable (and therefore permanent) they might stink up the place for a long time following any accident. If they are too unstable, they’ll break down before they’re ever used, forcing users to constantly purchase new chemicals.

3. Do we really want another printer in the house?

Chemical issues aside, this scent cartridge design printer concept is bound to be difficult to use. When was the last time you enjoyed using your printer at home? And you can just throw away (or not look at) a misprint. Imagine a scent printer inevitably malfunctioning, and the printer test smell (printing out all primary scents to ensure they’re working) is generated. How terrible would that be?

What if it breaks, or a malicious user begins remotely printing malodorous scents? Then you’ve got some horrible odor permeating the house (potentially for hours) before the First Smell can be turned off. Once again, you can throw away/overwrite unintended printouts from a visual printer, but you can’t really do that with odors. You remember that scene from Office Space? Now multiply that by being assaulted via a sense that you can’t possibly ignore or escape, short of leaving your home. It ends up not being the blissful picture that the First Smell contest entry evokes.

This leads to a common problem with printers today: if one reservoir of ink (or toner) runs out, you have to replace the entire cartridge. Sure there are refill kits that are cheaper than replacing the entire cartridge; but imagine if, while replacing one of these scents on your own, you spill one.

4. Can you avoid smelling what The Rock is cooking?

Even if all those previous issues are resolved, the fact remains that a scent may stay around for a long time. And creating a scent for a single meal is simply too myopic for having a dedicated device. Sure, you could have it emit another less dramatic neutral smell when it’s not in active use (à la Glade products), but those contrasting smells emanating from the same device would create a level of friction in the user’s mind that reduces the quality of the user experience.

Not to mention, what if you decide you don’t want to make the dish that you sampled? What if you puff out a recipe for cheese enchiladas, and you end up deciding on orange chicken? Someone in the house (assuming the food is being cooked for a medium-sized family) is going to get the wrong impression, or end up wanting the cheese enchiladas. Where are you then?

It’s also sort of a lose-lose idea, because if the scent of the dish that the First Smell generates is too different from the dish that’s being emulated, the cooked dish can’t possibly meet that expectation and a negative experience is created. If the smell of the dish is too conservative, the user won’t likely want to make that recipe in the first place because it appears too bland, and a negative experience is created.


The fact remains that the smells generated by most dishes, especially really appetizing ones, are relatively strong. And that scent sticks around for at least as long as the meal lasts. That, compounded by the inherent frustration of a conventional (relatively easily ignored) printer, as well as the cost to operate an aroma printer, and you’ve got several problems to solve even before considering bringing this concept to market. None of which are addressed in the original First Smell entry.