This AI-Powered Smell-O-Vision Device for Video Games Stinks

Gamescent lets gamers experience smells such as burning rubber, gunfire, and explosions. But is it a breath of fresh air or just a stinker?Published Apr. 01, 2024 9:47PM EDT Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily BeastSmell-O-Vision, or the idea of smelling what’s happening on the TV or movie in front of you, was first introduced in 1939—and released to

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Gamescent lets gamers experience smells such as burning rubber, gunfire, and explosions. But is it a breath of fresh air or just a stinker?

Benjamin Powers

Illustration of an old arcade video game with a nose flaring inhaling green odor lines

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Smell-O-Vision, or the idea of smelling what’s happening on the TV or movie in front of you, was first introduced in 1939—and released to less than enthusiastic results. The scents were pumped via pipes to individual seats in the theater and were released by the projectionist using a control board. But when the scents were released, the pipes hissed, distracting audience members, and it sometimes took the scents several seconds to reach moviegoers noses, missing the scene it was supposed to accompany.

Now, a product called Gamescent is claiming the same for video games. The device uses artificial intelligence along with swappable scent cartridges to let gamers experience smells such as burning rubber, gunfire, and explosions for only $150, which includes six base scents. (You’ll have to pay extra for additional scents.)

Of course, Smell-O-Vision was a flop and it’s unclear whether there is a market to pump the scents like “zombie” and “blood” into people’s living rooms. But the company’s founders are betting there is—and even plan to expand to movies.

“Scent imprints in the long and short term memory, more so than any other of the human senses,” Dean Finnegan, CEO of Gamescent, told The Daily Beast. “They don’t know why at first and then they discover it is linked to emotion, the emotion you’re feeling at the time you smell something. It’s also stored much more so than with sight and sound and other things.”

A device

The Gamescent device. The device uses AI to help detect, coordinate, and link the sounds to the scent dispersal.

Gamescent

Gamescent sent me one of their devices to test on a variety of video games on a Playstation 5, including the sci-fi bug and robot killing of Helldivers 2, the luxurious and fantastic world of Baldur’s Gate, and even the high seas of the swashbuckling Skull and Bones.

The results were a mixed bag—and the only truly memorable scents were the ones left on my couch.

Smelly History

The scent triggers for the original Smell-O-Vision were timestamps within the movies that would correspond to specific smells. Decades later, there was a concept that was brought to computers in the 1990s called iSmell, which would release scents associated with a desktop website through a physical shark-esque fin that you could plug in via USB.

Despite earning $20 million in funding in the late nineties, the company behind iSmell ultimately failed. It turns out people do not want to smell their websites. Today, video games are one of the largest industries in the world—and with the AI boom infusing everything with the emerging technology, Gamescent has also incorporated it into its product.

The device uses AI to help detect, coordinate, and link the sounds to the scent dispersal. The company trains their model by feeding it different sound effects off of numerous different video games and movies from sound digital libraries used by video game developers, according to Nate Parker vice president of marketing at Gamescent.

A half hour after I finished experimenting with Gamescent, I picked up my coffee to take a sip and the plastic top tasted like smoke—and not in a good way.

“We train our AI off of that,” he told The Daily Beast. “So if you’re playing something that has guns in there, the gun fires will release the gunfire smell. It’s really as simple as that.”

In these libraries there are, for example, hundreds of gunfire sounds or the sounds of leaves rustling or branches in the wind or birds chirping or even waves. These sounds were fed into Gamescent’s AI to train it, and now it responds to those environmental stimuli and releases an associated scent when it detects them.

Rather than a complex system like OpenAI’s text-to-video project Sora, Gamescent’s AI is meant to only do one thing: train on sounds and associate them with scents. This narrow focus makes for a relatively simple system.

For comparison, if game developers were going to include scents on their own they would have to code scent triggers or the like into any game they were making, which is too much of a lift on developers because it adds a whole other layer of work and integration.

Gamescent is also planning to launch its product to integrate with virtual reality products and movies. Still, there is skepticism that a market for this product will develop.

“If you were to list the 20 things that you want [in a gaming product] that you think could be used to improve the system, I don’t think smell would hit that top 20,” Kristian Hammond, a professor of computer science at Northwestern University and director of Northwestern’s Center for Advancing Safety of Machine Intelligence, told The Daily Beast.

“Whether it’s body sensing, haptics, these are all on the list of things you can walk through that people are trying to do to make those experiences more realistic,” Hammond added. “And smell is one of them but again, it’s way down the list.”

The Road Less Smelled

It took me two hours of trial and error to set up the Gamescent unit, which includes a Bluetooth-connected “smell box” and an adapter that passes between the TV and the game console. It also requires downloading and registering for a mobile app—so it’s not exactly plug and play.

The results, once set up, were hit and miss. For example, the gunfire and explosions in Helldivers 2 triggered but were delayed by about 45 seconds after they first fired. If you’ve played the game, you know there is a lot of gunfire and explosions happening.

The smell was acrid too. It wasn’t a pleasant smell, but also not as offensive as you might think. However, because the product uses essential oils as a diffusion mechanism, the scents cling to things. A half hour after I finished experimenting with Gamescent, I picked up my coffee to take a sip and the plastic top tasted like smoke—and not in a good way.

A device with six cartridges

Gamescent comes with swappable scent cartridges to let gamers experience smells such as burning rubber, gunfire, and explosions for only $150, which includes six base scents. (You’ll have to pay extra for additional scents.)

Gamescent

Other in-game events triggered scents they weren’t necessarily supposed to. When I played the popular car-meets-soccer game Rocket League, upon slamming on the pedal the “storm” scent—which smelled a bit like an ocean spray scent candle if it had been deconstructed—triggered as opposed to the “racing car” scent of exhaust and tires. After burning some rubber, I was able to trigger the “racing car” scent but it was far from automatic.

There may be interest in the combination of scent and gaming down the line, but Hammond isn’t sure he can even see that far. “It’s not clear you want to have your living room filled with the smell of gunfire,” Hammond said. “Is there any industry interest in this writ large? I don’t think so.”

So only time will tell if Gamescent will take off or go the way of iScent before it, and Smell-O-Vision before that. If my experience was any indication, though, history might not repeat itself—but it sure might smell the same.

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