What is Smell-O-Vision?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

During the 1950s and early 1960s, motion picture companies experimented with a number of gimmicks in order to compete with the new audience-stealing medium known as television. One of these gimmicks, championed by movie producer Mike Todd, Jr., was dubbed Smell-O-Vision because it attempted to use familiar scents to enhance an audience's movie-going experience. The Smell-O-Vision process proved to be a glitch-filled flop with audiences, however, and only one Smell-O-Vision movie was ever shown in theaters.

In the Smell-O-Vision concept, a projectionist might release the smell of smoke in a theater when a gun was fired on screen.
In the Smell-O-Vision concept, a projectionist might release the smell of smoke in a theater when a gun was fired on screen.

The process Todd called Smell-O-Vision was actually developed by a German movie technician named Hans Laube several decades earlier. Laube called his system Scentovision, however. The basic concept involved a projectionist manually releasing various scent vials at specific points in a movie, such as the scent of flowers during a romantic scene or the smell of gun smoke during a shoot-out. The original Scentovision system failed to catch on for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the substantial amount of conflicting fragrances which eventually filled the theater.

Smell-O-Vision was a movie gimmick primarily used in the 1950s and 60s to generate more interest in films.
Smell-O-Vision was a movie gimmick primarily used in the 1950s and 60s to generate more interest in films.

When Mike Todd, Jr. and his father were considering a novel approach to promoting their newest film, Around the World in 80 Days, they recalled an earlier demonstration of Laube's Scentovision system. Although the redubbed Smell-O-Vision system was not actually implemented on that film, Todd did commission a comedy-mystery film which would feature Smell-O-Vision. This movie was appropriately titled Scent of Mystery, and it would hold the dubious honor of being the first and last movie produced in Smell-O-Vision.

The idea was to rig individual theater seats with hollow tubes which would transmit the various scents at crucial plot points. One character would be represented by a distinctive scent of pipe smoke, for example. A belt containing the individual fragrance vials would be synchronized with the soundtrack in order to ensure audience member received the right scent at precisely the right moment. In practice, however, some of the scents did not sync up well with the plot points, arriving too late or not at all.

Smell-O-Vision suffered from the same problem 3-D movies did several years earlier. The process itself was much better than the movies which employed it. Audiences became frustrated with the sensory overload aspect of Smell-O-Vision, and Scent of Mystery was universally panned by movie critics at the time. The era of motion picture gimmicks soon ended, and the Smell-O-Vision process was mothballed as studios struggled to survive.

Modern attempts at reviving Smell-O-Vision usually involve special scratch-and-sniff cards which audiences are asked to smell during specific scenes. While this may have solved some of the technical glitches regarding the transmission of scents, directors such as John Waters have demonstrated some dubious choices when it comes to the fragrances included in a modern Smell-O-Vision movie.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular EasyTechJunkie contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

You might also Like

Discussion Comments


I actually found one of those John Waters Smell-O-Vision cards at a vintage and antique store. Most of the scents had worn off, but I could still smell a few. They were awful. I bought the card mostly for the novelty of it. I grew up when John Waters' movies were the big underground rage.

I can see why 3D movies might be interesting to watch. They do bring some depth to the scenes. But those other gimmicks like Smell-O-Vision and electrified seats were just silly.


I don't think I would have enjoyed watching a movie in Smell-O-Vision. I get a headache when a co-workers wears too much perfume to work, so sitting in a crowded movie theater while someone pumped all sorts of odors into the air would be too much. The scratch-and-sniff card idea might be better, but I'm not sure I really need to smell gunpowder or burning gasoline or perfume to get the idea of a scene.

Post your comments
Forgot password?