I grew up browsing at the Sharper Image (a U.S. based gizmo shop) with my dad. It was the kind of store, at its coolest in the post-yuppie years, where a dad of even modest gadget affinity could while away hours marvelling at the wonders of a post-industrial world, or their closest approximation - an automatic toenail clipper.
I watched a little too much Inspector Gadget myself, so it was a perfect outing for us. With its piles of over-designed and unnecessary stuff - from massage chairs to pocket lasers to electronic office mini-golf to super-long-range walkie-talkies - there was nothing gadget-cool that couldn't be found at the Sharper Image or Brookstone or in the pages of the deliciously unpronounceable Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue.
But did anybody ever buy anything at these stores? You could marvel at the neatness of a machine that emitted whale noises to get you to sleep, but would you actually fork over your hard-earned money to own one?
These stores had tons of fancy machines designed to do things that usually didn't need volted doing.
So it was with a whiff of nostalgia and a presupposition of superfluousness that I greeted the arrival of Febreze's Scentstories machine at my door. I'd seen ads for it and been curious about who would spend $45 on a machine that promised to dispense a CD's worth of scent by way of a device that looked much like an MP3 player.
From the picture, I thought it was pocket-sized. But when I opened the package I realized it was much larger, about the size of a loaf of bread. I placed the disc, Exploring A Mountain Trail, in the player, and the machine went into action. A fan began to blow over a packet of smelly gel powder, and my "scent story" began its first track, "following the winding trail."
Did I feel like I was following a winding trail? I wasn't quite sure. I let the disc play through, unable to detect the shift from the creek to "walking beside wildflowers," but knowing it was happening because the machine emitted a whirring sound each time it changed tracks.
Did it differ significantly from a plain old can of air freshener, or even a scented tea candle? To the olfactory void that is my nose, well, not so much. In fact, after the first track or two, I couldn't smell it at all. If I stuck my nose up to the fan, however, I got a whiff of high-speed canned forest that wasn't at all unpleasant.
Scentstories is the first consumer application of a trend that's been rocking the commercial world for a few years. Scentair ( scentair.com ), an Orlando, Florida-based company, has been around since 2000 and basically produces Scentstories for department stores and Canadian Tire.
These apparati cost anywhere from $2,400 to $12,000 and can emit over 1,000 scents (ranging from "cream cheese danish" to "sulfurous volcano") in spaces as large as 6,000 square feet.
In effect, Scentair produces maximum-strength Scentstories. They employ the same gel cartridge technology, and the machines are only slightly larger than the Shoppers Drug Mart variety.
But, more importantly, in the shopping world, Scentair's machines - the Scentwave and Scentblitz - have proven ridiculously effective. If you spray "cinnamon bun" (Scentair produces no fewer than three cinnamon variants) around a mall food court, sales will be significantly higher than if you don't.
The same is true if you spray warm bakery aromas around the bakery section at a grocery store that doesn't bake on the premises. Seduced by the smell of fresh baguette, shoppers don't clue in to the fact that the nearest bakery is 20 klicks away.
Scentstories, by contrast, doesn't entice me to buy anything in my living room. As a gadget, it's very much like all those I came across as a kid, It may be dolled up to look like a piece of Japanese electronica (three shades of plastic and a sinuous shape), but it's still just a fan blowing smelly things through some plastic.
In these days of gadget glut, this one feels like just another plastic parcel destined to make its way to landfill. It also consumes power, creates waste and isn't a significant improvement over a handful of potpourri.