Follow your nose to a more sensual future

We are all used to our visual and aural senses being bombarded, but now our noses and fingertips are being targeted too. Michael Evamy breathes in the latest brand developments.

If you’ve had enough of the information age, if the job of hoovering up new knowledge and floods of data through your eyes and ears has worn you out, you probably won’t want to read the next bit of this. The news is that pretty soon we could have our other senses placed under siege by marketers, retailers and manufacturers.

As soon as they learn how to lead us by our noses, fingertips and tongues, say the experts, the consumer world will become a richer, more meaningful place.

After the eyes and ears, the next stop is the nose. Chemical companies are developing simulations of aromas as fast as they can think of them; aromas that will tempt us into shops and get us dribbling at the thought of all the goodies within. Brands may have their own smell: something else to know them by, an aromatic identity that service companies, in particular, will value as a means of differentiation.

Looking further ahead, our sense of touch is likely to be indulged with new “haptic” devices that help give tangible form to things we presently only perceive on the screen. Imagine the use of such a thing to Web retailers or TV shopping channels. Of infinitely greater value would be haptic devices and other hi-tech tactile aids that, like braille, offer new sources of information to people with visual impairments. Around the corner may be a more sensual world where information and pleasure are available on many levels. Designers of products, services and environments may soon have their palettes extended as science finds ways of delivering new smells, sounds, tastes and textures to audiences.

This is the future vision that has stimulated a new venture at Central St Martins College of Art. Geoff Crook, the MA Design Studies course director, is heading a Sensory Design Research Laboratory, which will work with a range of designers (product, packaging, retail and so on) and businesses to develop a sensory spectrum which will “extend the interactive opportunities available to all marketing and design disciplines”.

With a shoestring budget available to it, the SDRL will begin its life collecting and classifying current examples of “sensory design” in order to build an argument for further, more fully funded research. A report, due in the autumn, is one outcome and Crook is also planning to stage a showcase of current developments in June.

“We’re also looking historically and at other cultures, such as African fetish design, and noting that, in that context, texture is as significant a form for communicating deep meaning to a culture,” says Crook. “We’re arguing that instead of evolving, we’re devolving, because there’s a sort of self-reinforcing pact between manufacturers, designers and retailers to stress audio-visual communication. We’re saying we don’t want to overturn the power of audio-visual communication, but extend the palette to include touch, taste and smell.”

It is not simply Crook’s own attachment to sensory delights that is behind the SDRL’s appearance now. The rediscovery of the senses, suggests Crook, is a reaction to the anaesthetising effects of modernism. Perhaps now that cities don’t smell half as bad as they did 500 years, or even 100 years ago, we can begin to indulge our olfactory organs once again. It is the advance of computer culture that has hastened our need for greater sensual fulfilment.

“I do think that we’re being encouraged away from the exploration and application of our senses,” says Crook. “We’re rushing off into a brave new world that is similar to the sterilised shopping centres of the late Sixties: everything shrink-wrapped, pre-processed, devoid of all the significant experiences. While you can argue that retailing has moved some way towards engaging with texture by selling real food, and finding less impenetrable packaging, in the digital world, we’re learning to live and love experiences that don’t compare with the ones outside the door.”

So has Central St Martins put its nose into the air and sniffed out something significant? What is the evidence for this new realm of the senses? As far as smells go, plenty of businesses are experimenting with custom-designed aromas. Swatch brought out a limited edition Mother’s Day watch this year that was scented with roses. Thorntons has tested the effectiveness of a fake chocolate aroma in its shops, and a similar whiff was wafted under the noses of shoppers at Superdrug on Saint Valentine’s Day last year.

The gases and technology group BOC boasts a division called BOC Aromagas which is meeting growing demand from retailers and other businesses for nice niffs. In 1995, the company attracted attention by developing an aroma-dispensing system which “stores” fragrance in liquid carbon dioxide and releases it in small doses.

Its first client was Woolworths, which trialled the system with the aroma of mulled wine at Christmas. Other businesses have followed, requesting smells such as gunpowder, smoked ham, furniture polish, engine oil, and starched shirts.

Supermarkets are known to be experimenting with piped sounds and smells to act as lures to special offers. A cheese promo could be accompanied by the gentle mooing of happy cattle and the occasional farmyard whiff.

Or, as a push to BSE-free British beef, you might have customers trying to catch the passing aroma of a roast joint and gravy, Bisto Kids-style.

A German marketing group, Meiré & Meiré, last year launched Aerome, a multi-sensory booth, aimed at the promotions and point-of-sale markets. Customers sit in front of a screen in a stylish, single-seater cabin and are treated to footage of advertised products. As the ads are running, a CD-ROM-synchronised aroma dispersal system releases the appropriate scent, just enough to tantalise the nostrils of the participant, but no one standing nearby.

It has been a struggle to perfect the coordination between sight, sound and scent, and to secure the backing of German banks, but the company believes it has stolen a march on the world by anticipating the demand for extra-sensory marketing. Not content with its potential as a fancy addition to cosmetics departments in department stores, the system’s developers trumpet its value for promoting a host of products, from Coca-Cola to BMWs.

Crook is looking beyond this none-too-subtle nose offensive to a point in the future when ambient aromas offer consumers cues to brands. Much as customers rely upon visual cues to orientate themselves in shopping centres, the whiff of a familiar, trusted brand could also draw them to where they want to be.

The language of scents could be developed to a point where, like graphic symbols used in logos, smells express the individual character of businesses, rather than refer directly to company names. Otherwise, producing a corporate aroma for companies with names like Virgin could present problems. The SDRL will also be gathering information on the exploration of tactile design, and the ways in which new physical stimuli are entering the world of communication.

Talking of Virgin, the Priestman Goode-designed Vibro-chairs recently introduced at its King’s Road music store in London are a good example of a brand exploring new opportunities. The chairs, modelled on Arne Jacoben’s famous Egg chair of the Sixties, pump chosen tracks through small, head-level speakers and vibrate the listener. The effect is akin to being in a club where the music is shaking the floor.

The same principle in reverse is behind something called the Biofeedback Snowboard, a finalist in the Idea 97 Awards in the US and designed by Donald Carr of Carr & Lamb Design. The snowboarder wears a pair of headphones connected to micro-motion sensors in the board itself. As he or she descends a slope, the forces transmitted through the snowboard are converted to digital sound for the rider’s auditory pleasure. A unique soundtrack to your ride. What it sounds like I’ve no idea, but I’ll bet Brian Eno can’t wait to get his hands on one.

Perhaps the most promising area is that of haptic technology. Scientists at BT Labs and MIT in the US, to name but two centres, are looking into how visual information received through the computer or TV screen can also be conveyed through touch. A haptic interface is one where a 3D electronic profile of an object is received, in the form of computer algorithms, and reproduced in a pencil-like probe held by the user. Run a pencil over an object on your desk: that is what a haptic interface feels like.

I wonder whether, in a bid to return to a more real, more sensual world, we are simply piling fake, virtual experiences on top of one another? Yes, says Crook, “but, in a way, where the digital world has huge potential is in allowing us to model and evaluate both what we’re familiar with and those concepts we have yet to engage with. As technology begins to simulate smell, as it alludes to texture as a means of understanding information, then it may just teach us to look for those things in the real world.”

Latest articles