Looking for new ways to appeal to audiences after the popularization of television, Smell-O-Vision attempted to introduce a third sense into the film viewing process by piping scents related to the on-screen images into the movie theater through small vents in the back of each theater seat. The novelty did not catch on and due to various complications brought on by the endeavor, only one film, Scent of Mystery, was ever released with the technology.
There were a few small attempts to involve the sense of smell in the film-going experience throughout the early days of cinema, but Smell-O-Vision technologized the idea in a way that had never been done before. The process, developed by Hans Laube and implemented with the support of Michael Todd, Jr., the son of a successful film producer, involved adding a high frequency sound into the soundtrack that would direct the Smell-O-Vision machine to release one of the scents stored on a rotating drum (Gould).
Unlike other attempts to involve the olfactory sensation in visual entertainment, Smell-O-Vision required converting the entire theater to suit the technology. To release the scent, a machine unseen by theater patrons would send a small bit of the selected scent, in liquid form, with a high amount of pressure into metal pipes that wrapped around each row in the theater. At each seat there was a small perforation in the tube, allowing the scent to escape for the intended enjoyment of the audience member. The scents themselves were chemically manufactured (Gould). Due to the complex process and the great amount of actual machinery involved to produce the effect, Smell-O-Vision cost anywhere from $24,000 to $50,000 per theater to implement (Nason, Malabre).
One major problem comes from the nature of smells. They are rather ephemeral. Depending on various environmental factors within the theater, such as airflow and ventilation, as well as the strength of the smell itself, the smell may linger longer or disappear more quickly than intended which may cause some film-goers to miss out on some of the scents and lead others to experience an unfavorable mixing of unrelated aromas. Additionally, the technology works under the assumption that there would be no other scents in the theater to get in the way. However, if someone had a big bucket of buttery popcorn, or someone was wearing very strong perfume it would intrude on the experience and muddy the scents released.
Another major problem with Smell-O-Vision is the limited access it provided people to produce and use the technology. The technology was not readily available. Not only did it require the actual machine (or instructions on how to build it), it also required the expensive process of reformatting a theater to suit the technology. Additionally, not everyone had the time, energy, or knowledge, to mix different chemicals together to produce the desired odors. Although it would be possible for others to learn the required skills, the costs associated with training and the extra work involved made it unappealing.
Having the ability to access and use the technology is also only one small part of the equation, however. There also needs to be a need. The novelty of an odorous film would only last so long before audience members would grow tiresome. Unless the technology could be used to accent the visual there would be no reason for the medium to continue to be used. In the case of Scent of Mystery, the scents released into the theater were in some small way pertinent to the solving of the murder presented in the film, however not many films involve aromas as a major part of the story. For the average movie-going experience it seems the smells would more likely detract from the experience. It would be impossible to recreate every scent encountered in the film, and by emitting only certain odors, the attention given to them might distract viewers or affect people's perceptions of the story in unintended ways.
While all of these are legitimate reasons for the failure of the technology, it is also important to consider the role of the observer, or in this case, the smell-er in this new technology. In his book Techniques of the Observer, Jonathan Crary discusses the way in which observers need to be trained to accept and read certain new types of visual media and content. Speaking of this he argues "an observer is more importantly one who sees within a prescribed set of possibilities, one who is embedded in a system of conventions and limitations" (6). Due to the relatively unexplored world of communicating with aromas, audiences lack a set of conventions for understanding how to experience the medium. If, as Crary suggests, an observer needs to be invented just as the technology does, perhaps the failure of Smell-O-Vision has as much to blame on the lack of a trained and invented observer as it does on the limitations imposed by the technology itself.
Is Smell-O-Vision Dead?
Smell-O-Vision was not the only attempt in its time to introduce smells into film, and it hasn't been the only attempt since. From Scratch-n-Sniff cards handed out before movies (or occasionally TV shows) to the use of single scents being dispersed through the ventilation systems, introducing smell into the viewing of motion pictures will likely be a novelty people will continue to play with, but due to the failure of Smell-O-Vision, it is unlikely it will ever be attempted on such a broad scale anytime soon.
While there may have potentially been (and still would be) a number of uses for this technology (advertising is a good example) it was only used once for an entertainment film. In the case of Smell-O-Vision, the medium really was the message. The specific scents released and their relationship with the film text were rather extraneous. Smell-O-Vision was a novelty, intended to bring people into the theater for the sheer fun of experiencing this new technology. Perhaps had the media lasted longer and developed into a legitimate aspect of filmic storytelling the content would have become more relevant, but as is we will never know.
Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992. Print.
Gould, Gordon. "Now, Movies You Can Smell!" Chicago Daily Tribune 1 Nov. 1959: G20. PDF file.
Malabre, Alfred L. "Scented Movies Use Hundreds of Chemicals In An Effort to Lure Fans Back by Nose." Wall Street Journal 6 Jan. 1960.PDF file.
Nason, Richard. "Smell-O-Vision to Get Film Test." New York Times 19 Aug. 1959: 35. PDF file.