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Smell-O-Vision was a system that released odors during the projection of a film so that the viewer could "smell" what was happening in the movie. The technique was created by Hans Laube and made its only appearance in the 1960 film Scent of Mystery, produced by Mike Todd, Jr., son of film producer Mike Todd. The process injected 30 different smells into a movie theater's seats when triggered by the film's soundtrack.



The use of scents in conjunction with film dates back to 1916, before the introduction of sound. In this first instance, the Family Theatre in Forest City, Pennsylvania, placed a wad of cotton wool that had been soaked in rose oil in front of an electric fan during a newsreel about the Rose Bowl Game. In 1929, during the showing of The Broadway Melody, a New York City theater sprayed perfume from the ceiling. Further attempts with releasing scents timed to key points in a film happened at a Detroit, Michigan theater with The Sea Hawk and Boom Town. The 1959 film, Behind the Great Wall, used a process called Aroma-Rama to send scents through the air-conditioning system of a theater.

The concept was sufficiently well-known that the 1944 Warner Bros. cartoon, The Old Grey Hare, postulated a year 2000 newspaper headline reading "Smellevision [sic] Replaces Television."

However, these early attempts were made by theater owners, and not part of the films themselves, and thus were seen as an offense to film aesthetics, as the audience could be distracted by the scents instead of focusing on what the film director intended. Furthermore, because of the size of the theaters, large amounts of perfume had to be released in order to reach all members of the audience. This caused another problem: The human nose has a difficult time transitioning between smells until the molecules that triggered one smell are completely cleared from the nose, and with that volume of perfume, the scents would mix together, becoming muddled.

Laube's technique, which he dubbed "Scentovision", was to connect pipes to individual seats in theaters, so that the timing and amount could be carefully controlled by the projectionist using a control board. He introduced this system in the 1939 New York World's Fair. The New York Times reported in 1943 that Scentovision "is said to have produced odors as quickly and easily as the soundtrack of a film produces sound."[1]

First and only application

Todd Sr. had staged a series of musical films at the 1939 World's Fair and met Laube during this time. Fifteen years later, Todd and his son were thinking of ways they could enhance their film Around the World in Eighty Days. They remembered Laube's invention and although they decided not to use it for this film, Todd Jr., after his father's death, was intrigued enough to sign Laube to a movie deal.

Laube's system, which was renamed "Smell-O-Vision" by Todd, had been improved in the intervening time. Now, instead of the scents being manually released, it used what he called a "smell brain", which was a series of perfume containers linked in a belt, arranged in the order that they would be released. The belt was then wound around a motorized reel. As the film threaded through the movie projector, markers on it would cue the brain. Needles would pierce membranes on the containers, releasing the scents, which would then be blown by fans through the pipes to individual vents underneath the audience members' seats.

Both Laube and Todd understood that the system had aesthetic limitations. For example, a heavy drama was not the sort of film that could employ it well. Thus, the system was to be deployed with the mystery-comedy Scent of Mystery, which would be the first film in which smells revealed certain plot points to the audience. For example, one character is identified by the smell of pipe tobacco.

Unfortunately, it didn't work as intended. According to Variety, aromas were released with a distracting hissing noise and audience members in the balcony complained that the scents reached them several seconds after the action was shown on the screen. In other parts of the theater, the odors were too faint, causing audience members to sniff loudly in an attempt to catch the scent. These technical problems, in conjunction with generally negative reviews of the film itself, signaled the end of Smell-O-Vision.[1]


In homage to Smell-O-Vision, American film director John Waters released an enhanced "Odorama" version of his film, Polyester in 1982. Waters included scratch and sniff cards that the audience could use while watching the movie. Although this approach solved the problems inherent in previous attempts at this technology, it did not gain widespread usage for other films. The idea, however, was duplicated twice: Once in the mid-1980s when MTV aired Scent of Mystery in conjunction with a convenience store promotion that offered scratch and sniff cards; the second time was the 2003 animated film Rugrats Go Wild!, the makers of which claimed it was an homage to Waters.[2]

Walt Disney World and Disneyland currently make use of this idea, in their 3-D film, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience. When several events occur in the film a mist is sprayed from the seat in front of the viewer, giving them an odor. Disney also uses this in the Animal Kingdom's It's a Bug's Life (also at Disney's California Adventure), where unpleasant odors are released coinciding with a stink bug on-screen, causing an audience reaction, as well as in Soarin' Over California and Mickey's Philharmagic. It is unknown, however, if the technology behind this is the same or a derivative of Laube's work.

In 2006, NTT Communications, a Japanese telecom giant, developed a new way to display odors during the release of The New World, with Colin Farrell. During 7 key moments throughout the film, scents were emitted by an internet server that was linked to the reel of film, effectively downloading the scent. The schedule can be seen here: [1] The scents used were supposed to evoke from the audience the emotions that were trying to be expressed in the film. Further reading of how it this system works can be seen here: [2]including an illustrated schematic for a visual representation for how it worked. Scents included: floral for romance scenes,peppermint & rosemary for tear-jerking moments,orange & grapefruit for joyful sequences, and eucalyptus, tea tree & herbs for angry scenes.

BBC April Fool's joke

In 1965, BBC TV played an April Fool's Day joke on their viewers. The network aired an "interview" with a man who had invented a new technology called "Smellovision" that allowed viewers at home to experience aromas produced in the television studio. To demonstrate, the man chopped some onions and brewed a pot of coffee. Viewers called in to confirm that they had smelled the aromas that were "transmitted" through their television sets. The response of some members of the audience to the practical joke might be an example of psychosomatic phenomena.

See also

  • Alexander Scriabin
  • Synesthesia
  • Odorama
  • iSmell


  1. ^ a b Smith, Martin J.; Kiger, Patrick J.. "The Lingering Reek of Smell-O-Vision", West, Los Angeles Times, February 5, 2006, p. 26. 
  2. ^ It's Walter's World in the Baltimore Sun Times (November 17, 2006).
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Smell-O-Vision". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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