SXSW Interactive: Exploring Scent as a Storytelling Tool

Can you smell what the Fest is cooking?

Especially when walking down Sixth Street, it's easy to tune out smells at SXSW. But alleyways aside, the aromas of malty beer, buttery popcorn, and sweaty concert venues are a visceral part of the experience.

photo by Gary Miller

Scent serves as underlying context, a pervasive data set that's not easy to qualify or quantify. It's tied closely to the emotional centers of the brain and bypasses rationality, so discussing specific scents is surprisingly difficult, and scent-based memories are charged with unparalleled nostalgia.

Still, scent is typically an underrated sense. At the SXSW Interactive panel "Exploring Scent as an Interactive Storytelling Tool," an international group of scent specialists led a four-hour workshop that dove deep into the idea of scent not only as a sense, but as a tool for artistic expression, commercial application, and narrative exposition.

After laying out basics on the science behind scent, the panelists outlined a series of creative applications. Marcel van Brakel of Dutch creative agency Polymorf explained his Famous Deaths project, which used isolation chambers to recreate the smells of the final hours of Whitney Houston, JFK, Lady Diana, and Muammar Gaddafi. Other creative applications mentioned included John Waters' vintage scratch-and-sniff film Polyester and a Virgin Galactic project that created a unique scent specifically to accompany their flights into space.

photo by Dan Gentile

But the real fun started once the PowerPoint was turned off and Saskia Wilson-Brown of the Institute for Art and Olfaction sniffed the 30 participants through a dozen different artificial and natural scents, discussing their properties and showing just how subjective smell can be.

After smelling through everything from grandmotherly violet to the burnt-fur smell of civets, attendees were instructed to pick two scents to use as building blocks in their choice of creative storytelling exercise. These ranged from crafting a scent-driven narrative experience based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood, to using memory associations with scents as the basis for product-design brainstorms.

At my table a group of Danish ad agency creatives talked through ways a fast-food client of theirs could combat negative associations of artificiality, while a medical industry nonprofit manager came up with a strategy for using scents to lessen stress in hospital environments.

SXSW Interactive is typically bogged down by relentless networking and marketing, but this workshop was one of those magical hands-on moments where people of different disciplines are shown a fresh new way to access their creativity. It'd be tough to find another room in the conference center on Tuesday that had a stronger smell of innovation.

photo by Gary Miller

Exploring Scent as a Storytelling Tool

Tuesday, March 15, Austin Convention Center

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