The ecommerce partners, meanwhile — both advertisers anxious to drop scents into banner ads, and online stores ready to scent-code product offerings, and even online sex shops eager to start scent-tracking online porn — wait anxiously in the wings. Take Procter & Gamble; the mammoth consumer brand manufacturer has been busy with the expected December launch of reflect.com, one of its first pure-play ventures into consumer ecommerce. Backed with $50 million in funding between the parent corporation and Menlo Park, Calif.-based Institutional Venture Partners, reflect.com will be geared toward selling cosmetics, fragrances, and hair products customized to the looks and preferences of online women shoppers.

Reflect.com would seem to be a tailor-made candidate for DigiScents technology. Not only is it already boasting about offering the “first personalized line of of beauty products,” it will open a fragrance shop where, according to marketing director Andrew Swinand, shoppers can create their own customized perfumes by answering customer surveys and psychographic profiles, then having reflect.com ship them a “customized” fragrance based on the data. (“We come up with metaphors for odors,” he explains, so reflect.com’s perfumers can target an appropriate matching aroma — “rose,” for example.) DigiScents would appear ready to make laughingstock of such leading-edge attempts at “personalization” if it delivers as promised.

“Run that by me again,” Swinand says after he is told a little about digital scent delivery. “Wow. That…uh, would be a huge benefit to the industry, obviously. I’ll have to get back to you.” Likewise, Eve.com co-founder Mariam Naficy is intrigued. “If it works,” she says, “the big questions for me would be the adoption rates and the integration that we’d need to do with their technology.” Back in Oakland, Belleson complains that he’s “getting pummeled” with phone calls from ecommerce outfits in the flower and beauty markets, but no deals have been inked yet, and he declines to name names. “We know they’re very interested already,” Bellenson says. But, as Smith says, “it’s not make or break part of the strategy right now.”

Why not? Instead of making a potentially very lucrative headlong dive into ecommerce and immediately licensing the technology for any advertiser or store, Bellenson and Smith are instead tearing a page out of the viral marketing handbook: For now, they’d rather work on building an active, vocal community of online scent artisans through their own Website — sorry, “snortal” — to give the technology some credibility and momentum, and maybe more importantly, give DigiScents a thriving, loyal melting pot of its own Web-based consumers.

“The way you get a consumer to utilize the box is having compelling content that they get enjoyment from,” Bellenson says. “Maybe they’ll enjoy ads more and product selection more too, eventually. But that’s not why they would want to have a box. They’ll want it for entertainment.”

As soon as the first round of beta boxes make it to the early adopters (sometime in April), DigiScents site visitors will click into “ScentWorld,” download fresh DigiScents smells (incense and chocolate, for example); access scent-design tools to allow them to create their own aromas; and start sending and receiving “scent mail,” an obvious innovation that promises to be a hit once enough boxes are wired into enough machines. Beyond that, Smith hints, might be broadband and network broadcasting, but he wouldn’t disclose any likely partners.

Skeptics have already cropped up. Mark Kvamme, board chairman at USWeb/CKS, who also serves on the board at Macromedia, calls DigiScents technology “a solution in search of a problem. First of all, it’s got to be accurate or it’s totally worthless.” And while he sees games and beauty products serving as likely markets, he doubts it will ever get mainstream consumer traction. “From an ecommerce and advertising perspective, what’s the explicit consumer benefit? And why would I want to spend $200 to get it? I just don’t see it.”

While we all await the public unveiling of digital scents for a few months, Gilmore suggests it is just one of many new layers the Web will take on in the coming years. “In the long term, this stuff is important because we need to see tech innovation occur across each of the senses, to speed up the day when an immersive environment will be available online, where you’ll literally be in some place — not cyberplace, and not cyberspace.”

Sure. Just remember to keep that scent cartridge refilled.

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