There's a wonderful moment in the 1971 film Harold And Maude when Maude introduces Harold to her "odorifics" machine. Harold dons a bizarre-looking mask and begins describing the fragrances of roast beef, old books and mown grass.
"Have you ever noticed that art ignores the nose?" says Maude.
The same might be said of technology. Aside from the attention given to it by those god-awful scent CDs that play a "symphony" of five rotating scents, our sense of smell gets virtually ignored by purveyors of high-tech gadgets.
Smell is our most primal and emotional sense, and it evokes what psychologists call our "involuntary memory," memories locked deep in our subconscious. Known as the Proust effect by book snobs named after the famous cookie-dunking scene that kicks off Remembrance Of Things Past this effect is being frantically researched so companies can harness the technology of smell.
In 1951, author Ray Bradbury imagined a technology called odorophonics that would play a central role in future virtual reality environments. Dune author Frank Herbert used the odalarm as a novel way to get loafers out of bed.
But so far, our 347 olfactory sensors have proven remarkably hard to stimulate in the ways suggested by sci-fi writers.
Engineers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, however, think they have it cracked. They've recently built what they call an odour recorder, capable of recording the molecules that make up smells and storing them so they can be copied and reassembled later. This technology could be used by customers with compatible computers who want to actually sniff out different perfumes or foods while shopping online.
The real cutting edge of scent technology is in the hands of food scientists who make a living off reproducing scents and tastes that might differ by only one or two atoms.
Givaudan, the world's largest fragrance manufacturer, travels the world looking for exotic flavours and scents. It has developed a gadget called an aroma chamber that sucks up fragrance molecules and traps them on synthetic polymer fibres, to be released and copied later in the lab.
These recent developments are taking the synthetic smell business out of the Dark Ages. Companies that sell smell technology have previously relied on a select few preprogrammed basic smells created by perfumers. This technology first debuted in 1960 as an accompanying smell-track to a movie appropriately named Scent Of A Mystery. Implementation proved such a disaster, it was quickly discarded, allowing John Waters to parody the idea 20 years later with his Odorama comedy Polyester, tickets to which were accompanied by scratch-'n'-sniff cards.
Earlier this year, NTT Communications Corporation resurrected the idea in select movie theatres in Japan, to accompany Terrence Mallick's The New World. Another Japanese company has created the Kaori Web, which consists of towers of preprogrammed perfume vials that will accompany computers in Internet cafés across Japan.
On a recent trip to the United Kingdom, my travelling companion and I were treated to scent soundtracks that are currently all the rage in museum dioramas. We could smell the smoked fish hanging from the beams of a Viking dwelling in York and the boozy stench of a medieval tavern in a museum devoted to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
As an antidote to the high-tech practice of creating smells molecule by molecule, enter New York City fragrance makers Chris Brosius and Chris Gable. The two run Demeter Fragrances and combine essential oils the old-school way, relying on trial and error to create offbeat fragrances like Play-Doh or Snow.
It would please Maude to know that they also offer the staples: roast beef, books and grass.