Feel more: when scents collaborate with words

The pervasiveness of digital technology means that our daily experiences are oversaturated with visual and auditory stimuli. Shunji Kurisu, CEO of Japanese company Scentmatic, believes that paying more attention to our sense of smell, and how it pulls our emotional strings, could make our lives much richer. At London Design Festival they will be presenting their technology – called KAORIUM – for the first time outside of Japan.

Olfactory experiences are different from sight, sound, taste, and touch because our sense of smell is directly connected to the limbic system, one of the oldest structures in the brain, commonly referred to as the animal mind. In contrast, the other four are processed by the neocortex, more recent in evolutionary terms and associated with cognition and language. This is one reason why olfactory sensations are difficult to verbalise, and why culturally we haven’t developed such a rich vocabulary to describe smells as we have for images and tastes.

To address this imbalance, Scentmatic has created an AI-powered system that turns scents into words. KAORIUM is based on information gathered via real world testing, and a large dataset collected from expressions used to describe smells in literature and a variety of publicly available online sources.

The company runs sessions where users are exposed to different scents, which they then tag with associated words, turning vague impressions into vivid ones. It also works in the opposite way, allowing the user to find a smell based on certain common expressions. For example, selecting the word ‘invigorating’ will prompt KAORIUM to suggest scents associated with that quality. The more a user interacts with the system, the better it becomes at making recommendations.

In one pilot experiment, Scentmatic helped Japanese fencing champion Kazuyasu Minobe to create a personalised aroma that would allow him to attain maximum relaxation before a tournament match. KAORIUM is also actively used to support retail brands in creating better connections with consumers. Sake is Japan’s iconic alcoholic beverage, but its consumption has been in constant decline, partly because consumers can’t differentiate between the 15,000-plus types available. Restaurants and shops are using Scentmatic’s technology to create a better match between the product and the consumer tastes, without relying on complex descriptions that are more suitable for professionals than for casual drinkers.

Consumer feedback has revealed that KAORIUM helps people easily understand the difference between scents, and to express with confidence what they are looking for. It’s Kurisu’s hope that by developing a wider verbal repertoire about smell and a stronger relationship with our olfactory sensations, it can become an invaluable tool for a better life.