In an increasingly online world that incorporates and celebrates moving images, words, and sounds, where does the physically grounded medium of olfaction fit in? Digital imagery utilizes the colors red, green, and blue to create all other colors in the spectrum; however, when it comes to creating smell, technology hasn’t found a recipe or system that allows for the same immediate connection potential as online imagery. Scent technology is slowly but surely making headway in the fragrance market, with Wunderman Thompson stating that “early metaverse plays by fragrance players are demonstrating how the future of digital engagement is shaping up to be truly immersive—reimagining sensory experiences for virtual environments.”
The State of the Digital Fragrance Product Landscape
Brands are diversifying the presentation and definition of a scented product in the online space. In August 2022, Gucci launched its first virtual perfume, Gucci Flora, on Roblox. Unlike any other perfume currently on the market, Gucci Flora doesn't possess a scent but instead includes a range of challenges, games, experiences, and a digital backpack for Roblox users to wear. This launch followed the June 2022 collaboration between Byredo and RTFKT’s AlphaMeta wearable auras. 26 auras were created as one way of digitally interpreting an array of scents as a mood and were made available as collectable elements for RTFKT’s “avatar ecosystem.” Not all approaches to digital fragrances are scentless. Cyrano produced a device they describe as a “scent speaker,” which uses an array of scent capsules to emit “playlists" of smells in 2016. The scents are paired with a video on their app transporting the consumer through both scent and visuals.
These creations are far from the decadent fragrances that have become so familiar. Roblox is a world away from gold-gilded J’Adore Dior commercials featuring Charlize Theron or Chanel No.5’s timeless popularity and luxury connotations. But, with the increasing penetration of e-commerce and the growth of both web3 and the metaverse, how does fragrance fit into the equation? Puig has created a digital platform, entitled WikiParfum, described as a “vast online compendium” of expert content, functionality, and features. The Barcelona-based brand wants to enable users to browse, compare, and choose fragrances from a regularly updating library that currently includes around 19,600 scents. When users search for a fragrance on the website or app, a digital tool draws from a database of 1,400 photographs of raw materials used in perfumery and organizes these images into a visual representation of that perfume.
Berlin-based Look Labs created what they called the “first-ever digital fragrance” in 2021 that feels most akin to the future of digital fragrances. Using near-infrared spectroscopy to create a digital reflection of scent, Look Labs recorded the molecular wavelengths of a perfume named Cyber Eau de Parfum, producing a digital artwork backed by a non-fungible token (NFT). Look Labs founder Jordan Katzarov previously expressed interest in finding a way to convert back the molecular reflections in order to recreate the scent back or fabricate an AI algorithm that can decode the scent and produce it.
The Drive Towards Digital Fragrance Production
Currently, a digital fragrance is an extracted digital reflection of a physical scent and not something tangible that can be smelt. It plays into the increasing interest in the metaverse, a place 37% of US adults believe to be more appealing than real life. In an era when the lexicon of beauty has shifted and is dictated by online trends and consumers are prioritizing their digital personas, going perfume-less may be less of a concern to customers when an Instagram post can receive thousands of likes and a plethora of positive commentary. A consumer's Instagram followers can’t smell them but they can see them, forcing products such as perfume to look at different ways to capture the attention and imagination of the increasingly online being.
With online popularity being more important than ever, brands are having to rethink traditional beauty cues and the metaversal concept of beauty and social standing based on physical elements. Digital fragrance keeps both the brand and its products feeling fresh and up-to-date by embracing the ever-evolving interests and wants of the consumer.
The ownership of a digital fragrance like Gucci Flora may be a way for Roblox users to elevate their social standings amongst their peers, whereas owning the Gucci Flora Gorgeous Gardenia Eau de Parfum is probably not going to affect their popularity or be as much of a statement to show off, as no one can see that it’s being worn. The Digital Ownership Report 2022 found that 63% of American millennials expect the metaverse to help them reinvent themselves. Consumers have the expectation that digitally, they can control how they are perceived, and showing off digital purchases is a way of “keeping up with the Joneses.”
The Future of Fragrance
Scent has always had the power to make people emote and feel connected to themselves and others. With physical selves and digital lives increasingly blurring together, the fragrance sector continues to build upon this connection. Brands like YSL have started initiatives where the purchase of a perfume comes with an NFT, a way of mixing the digital and physical. Google has been training their AI models for several years to predict how molecules will smell by analyzing their structural makeup. Osmo is using similar technology to craft new fragrance molecules. This is a sign that the most difficult of the senses to access digitally—smell—may one day be quantified into machine-read data, and digital fragrances will be able to work like their physical counterparts. Given the current and future developments, could we one day have a fragrant digital perfume?
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