What differentiates technology developments that truly disrupt and change the way we live our lives from those that are simply a flash in the pan? What makes some technological ideas or movements stick like the iPhone and others fade into the annals of history like the concept of moon colonies or flying cars?

The answer might surprise you given its simplicity: persistence.

The ability to overcome obstacles, adjust thinking and methodologies, and adapt workflows and practices to meet the needs of the moment help create technology that makes a lasting impact.

Steve Jobs and his quest to make personal home computing a staple technology in every household wasn’t an unbroken boulevard of green lights – Jobs and Apple experienced a number of setbacks, hurdles, challenges, and failures before achieving what they set out to do.

Smell-O-Vision, on the other hand, and those who initially championed the idea and ferried it into its early stages of use, lacked the foresight, agility, and flexibility to react to market forces, consumer feedback, and technological glitches. Otherwise, they might have truly reinvented how we interact with film and television. Thus, the idea makes a tragically pristine case study of how some technologies reshape our world and how some can never get off the launchpad.

The Scent of Mystery

Let’s take this back to the very beginning. The year is 1960 and the film is The Scent of Mystery. This movie marks the first use of a new technology called Smell-O-Vision. The premise behind this new advent was simple: various aromas would be released via vents beneath seats inside a theater auditorium.

In the case of The Scent of Mystery, common aromas such as coffee, pipe tobacco, shoe polish, gasoline, and bananas were piped into the theater to heighten certain key emotional moments in the story.

While early consumer feedback and audience interest proved strong, the critical reviews of Smell-O-Vision in The Scent of Mystery were scathing enough to send any entrepreneur running for the hills. Not only were there technical difficulties that impeded the overall effectiveness of the tech (we’ll get to those later), but Smell-O-Vision simply lacked emotional punch and raw power, instead looking more like a gimmick than a game-changer.

A recent article in The Smithsonian Magazine referred to Smell-O-Vision in The Scent of Mystery as: “Instead of enhancing the cinematic experience, the smells ended up supplying something briefly weird and not very interesting, no different from a noisy special effect.”

Ah, the death knell for any tech developer – not only did your program or app or film integration not improve the experience, but it may in fact have actively harmed the end-user’s enjoyment of a product or moment.

The Dreamer Behind Smell-O-Vision

In any creative or technological endeavor, those behind the invention are the people insteeped in solving a problem that is closely associated with their own product or idea. The same rule applies for Smell-O-Vision and its creative force Dr. Hans Laube, a Swiss inventor whose work centered around mechanical systems that removed and vented stale, foul, or unpleasant odors from movie theaters and auditoriums.

Laube’s ventilation and removal systems saw their heyday in the early to mid-1930’s, where it dawned on him that if he was successful at removing odors that detracted from the moviegoing experience then perhaps pleasant or emotionally-impactful aromas could actually enhance how a moviegoer experiences a film.

By the late 1930’s Laube had developed a prototype of this system whereby a series of tubes and vents would air-force aromas into a theater auditorium triggered by certain key moments of elements of a movie. Originally called Scentovision, Laube demonstrated the potential of this technology with the short film “Mein Traum” or “My Dream” at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City.

Very much a dry run of the technology, the film’s projectionist released the aroma of flowers into the air when roses appeared on-screen. In other scenes, scents of peaches, hay, burning incense, and frying bacon were deployed as proof of concept for how potent this technology could be.

Smell-O-Vision Can’t Pass the Sniff Test

Fast-forward 20 some years from the 1939 World’s Fair to The Scent of Mystery and the question becomes: how did such a promising technological advancement fail? Or, perhaps the better question is: what were the technological hurdles that developers and filmmakers just couldn’t overcome to make Smell-O-Vision an integral part of the moviegoing industry?

As with so many technological developments, it’s never just one thing – and in fact if these inventions or products hinged on a single complication, perhaps we may actually have the aforementioned flying cars of moon cities.

Some of the technological glitches that plagued Smell-O-Vision seem fairly basic, though with any piece of technology, we have to appreciate the context and time in which they exist. In 1960 for example, the technology to trigger the release of aromas was unable to be effectively timed with the action on-screen, releasing the wrong aroma at the wrong time.

The range or reach of certain aromas relative to the power of the ventilation system was also an issue – keep in mind, in the 1960’s, some theaters still did not have adequate or even any air conditioning systems, which would render Smell-O-Vision essentially dead on arrival. Many moviegoers were not able to experience the necessary aromas when released as they could not reach certain parts of the theater, or their impact was significantly reduced by the time audience members could detect them.

Glitches like these and negative consumer experiences resulted in negative word-of-mouth and it wasn’t long before Smell-O-Vision couldn’t shake its own stench of nothing more than a gimmick.

The Legacy of Smell-O-Vision

Though Smell-O-Vision and the principles behind it had a brief resurgence with some BBC filmmakers in the mid-1960’s, the book was more or less out on Smell-O-Vision, and the technology never saw another significant trial with other applications.

You may be thinking: the hurdles Smell-O-Vision encountered don’t seem that insurmountable, so why didn’t ultimately succeed in future trials?

You actually just answered your own question: because there really were no later trials. There were no attempts to refine the technology, to better understand the limitations and how to overcome them, or to discover solutions to the initial problems and use new and emerging technologies to shore up Smell-O-Vision’s early stumbles.

Like we said at the onset of this exploration, the success of any technology (whether it’s an app, a program, a coding set, a website) depends on the tenacity and perseverance of those with their hands on the wheel.

Yes, Dr. Laube did have the technological capability and experience to engineer his idea into existence (and today’s tech professionals must of course have the requisite skills and talents), but the determination and vision to see this advancement through subsequent incarnations, versions, or iterations is ultimately what kept Smell-O-Vision from becoming the game-changer Laube had envisioned.

To put it simply: the best technological advancement or development can only get so far as the perseverance of those driving it.

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