ARN

AT LARGE: Non-scents

I have a cold at the moment, my first of the season. Not a very bad one - not one of these killer virus things that wipes people out for days at a time - but just enough that I have no sense of smell. My singing voice is badly affected also, but you don't need to know that.

I have a sense that the timing of my stuffed-up proboscis, and the attendant absence of olfactory feedback, is not entirely coincidental. For, you see, only a couple of weeks ago (by the time you read this) one of my favourite Internet startups shut its doors after failing to attract further venture capital. I think my nose has deliberately shut its own doors in protest, or perhaps tribute.

Now, you may ask, why would the demise of one Internet startup register more highly in my sympathies than any other, and why would my nose care? Well, the thing is this: the startup concerned is Digiscents. Digiscents launched a couple of years ago amid one of the more interesting hypestorms of the Internet boom. Its mission was to make the Web a truly multimedia experience by adding smells to the mix. What good is a live streaming video of a concert, reasoned the company's founders, if all you can do is hear and see the action? Do you not want to smell what the audience is smelling?

Most of the concerts I've been to have smelt like a mix of sweat, cheap perfume and Otto's jacket (that's an in-joke) and, as such, I've not been too keen to invite such aromas into my home. But I've been intrigued as to how Digiscents would achieve this ambitious, if ignoble, goal. And, heck, I admired its pluck.

The plan, apparently, was to create a Pantone-like palette of smells, derived from combinations of a few basic aromatic elements. One of the company founders described it as "the RGB of smell", but at last count the prototype system would have involved 128 separate "basic" smells. So it's a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea. Basically, the user would have a device (called an "iSmell" - a name which would have had to change before marketing) plugged into their computer. Certain Web sites with scent-oriented content would have elements encoded with this "RGB of smell" info, which would activate the "iSmell" device to mix its elixir of smells and produce something closely approximating what the content of the Web site ought to smell like.

That's the theory anyway. Presumably, sellers of high-quality perfumes would be loath to admit that the subtle mixes of aromas and esters and whale blubber that comprise their distinctive and alluring fragrances could be simulated to even a limited degree of accuracy by a box of smelly stuff hanging off COM2. Likewise winemakers, who communicate about "bouquet" in such subjective terms as "freshly cut hay and an aftertaste of burnt toast with blueberry jam, caramelised sugar and just a whiff of horse fart" wouldn't be keen to see their descriptions reduced to alphanumeric codes.

But there are many other places on the Web where you ought to be able to smell stuff. The above example of concerts, for instance. I have to admit, there is something immediate, something visceral, about the smell of a concert - the anticipation of the audience, the fear of the performers, the blood, sweat and mud from the mosh pit, the cheap cologne of the security guards - it all just makes the orchestra so much better. And what of those who don't like classical music? Wouldn't you like to know what the Spice Girls actually smell like? (Correspondence on this subject will not be entered into).

And there are yet more esoteric applications of the Digiscents technology. What if you could surf over to www.nitrousoxide.com and just chill out for a bit? (This site does actually exist, but it is tragically under-utilising its enormous potential). I know of many chat rooms that would be immeasurably enhanced by such additions. Then there's car dealers, fish shops and shoe stores . . .

But, alas, it is not to be. Smelling the Internet may well be the most exciting new technology of the 21st century, but because it's hard to sell (see the arguments against perfumeries and winemakers adopting it) no-one wants to invest. Two years ago you could get venture capital for any cockamamie scheme - the more ridiculous the better. Burial plots on the moon, that sort of thing (I didn't make that up). Now you have to look like you might make a profit one day. It's a shame, really.Matthew JC. Powell reckons a scent-enhanced Vick's VapoDrops site would be a godsend. Direct your sympathies to mjcpowell@ozemail.com.au