NEW YORK — It's somehow doubtful that all the games you've tried on your iPhone pass the smell test. But the Poptopia app from Pop Secret on your iPhone almost certainly will, at least if you relish the scent of popcorn.
The microwave-popcorn maker is experimenting with a limited edition kernel-shaped plastic dongle called The Pop Dongle. When you plug it into the audio jack of the iPhone, it emits the smell of popcorn during game play. The object of the game seems rather simple. You score points by tapping glowing kernels on the screen so that they fly into "The Almighty Mouth."
But when you manage to swipe the chunk of butter that appears on screen from time to time, the dongle dispatches a popcorn-scented spritz. (Before that happens, you must discover the "Easter Egg" that activates the smell function — I won't give away how.) It's as if you're playing Poptopia in a movie theater.
Pop Secret describes this as "the first-ever scented mobile gaming experience" and if you have a nose for such things you might think it a gimmick. You wouldn't be far off either since the whole point here is to promote the Pop Secret brand.
The app and dongle were produced as part of a series of digital experiments called Pop Secret Labs in conjunction with the Deutsch LA creative agency and Deeplocal, a Pittsburgh agency.
Pop Secret is sniffing around to see the reaction to the Pop Dongle before pushing it out to the masses — if it even gets to that point. You can play the free-to-download Poptopia game without the dongle, which is just as well since the dongle is being treated as a scarce resource. Pop Secret sent out only a small batch to journalists and put three up for auction at eBay, the first of which sold for $315, with the proceeds going to the American Red Cross. Another is up for sale now, with the price bid edging past $100. You certainly wouldn't pay more than a few bucks for the dongle if it were actually out on the market.
Still, I'm intrigued by the larger possibilities, since smell is the untapped sense when it comes to video games or interacting with other digital treats.
The idea is not a new one, as anyone who remembers the smell machine in the 1971 film Harold and Maude can attest. In building the new Xbox, Microsoft at least considered using smell cartridges that might give off the scent of burning rubber in a racing game.
A Japanese company Scentee sells its own olfactory device for your smartphone that uses different aromas to communicate. Like the Pop Dongle it plugs into the earphone jack of your phone and emits different scents for such things as Facebook "Likes" and email notifications. The company even says you use smell to wake you up using the clock alarm on your phone. You can choose lavender, jasmine, coffee and other smells from the Scentee scent cartridge catalog.
According to Deeplocal, the Pop Dongle has enough scent to spray 500 to 1000 times. You can't refill the cartridges in this version, but such a solution would be considered if the company decides to move forward. You charge the dongle through USB.
Deeplocal CEO Nathan Martin said the technology challenge was to make the smell available only during a finite period of time during the game. When you swipe the button, a sub-audible sound triggers the release of the scent.
"You're playing a game about popcorn (and smelling it)," Martin says. "That's what makes it real."
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