CES 2013: 139 startups, and one that stinks

Robot makers, gadget case makers, and a company determined to spew smells at you while you play video games.

Sensory Acumen's scent-spewing device Sensory Acumen

Among the throng of startups heading to the 2013 International CES next month will be one that's trying to crack through all the noise by stinking up the joint. Literally.

This is the goal of Charlene Coleman, the founder and CEO of Sensory Acumen, a bootstrapped venture from Orinda, Calif., that's spent the last three years working on a device, called GameSkunk, that spews all sorts of scents at people as they play video games. At least that's the hope.

"We thought this would take games to another level," said Coleman, who's now working on deals with game developers. "They already have great sound and music."

The idea of smellevision isn't a new one. It was tried in movie theaters 50 years ago, in fact. And at least one other startup, Scent Sciences, is also trying to add some olfactory enjoyment to your multimedia world. The methods differ, however, and the challenges, including finding partners that want to work odor into their electronics, certainly aren't small.

But, hey, that's what successful startups are all about -- tackling ideas others dismiss as foolhardy. Which is why Coleman, a marketing veteran of the consumer electronics industry, is hoping CES leads to all sorts of connections and unforeseen markets. She'll be one of 140 startups -- up from 100 last year -- set up in booths at Eureka Park, which is CES's hall set up exclusively for startups. As was the case last year, the types of companies showcasing are all over the map -- from a maker of cases that boost your phone's sound to a renewable-energy battery system company and a team with roots at Carnegie Mellon University that's coming to demo its toy robots.

The idea for GameSkunk began with Coleman's husband, an avid gamer who began wishing the immersive game experience included scents. So Coleman, who has worked for Sony and Panasonic, got decided to make a go of it. The couple invested their own money. They brought on a team of five, both software and hardware engineers. They teamed up with fragrance and flavor scientists, started building a prototype, and were selected to be apart of Startup America, the national organization headed by AOL founder Steve Case .

Their latest version of the device, which they'll show off at CES, can plug into a computer via USB or work wirelessly, so it could be used with a game console. It holds cartridges that contain the smells you need. Coleman explained: "A cooking game might have onions, raw food, and cooked foods. In a war game, if a building's on fire, you might smell smoke. Of if you fall down, you'll smell dirt or grass."

Through an API, developers can build into the game which odors go where. It's all blasted out via a compressor -- there is no fan -- and Coleman says the odor reaches the player within 3 feet and in less than 3 seconds.

Neat idea, for sure, but it's a tall challenge. For one, she needs to get game makers on board, which is something she says she's working hard at now. Plus, the system isn't compatible with all the games already on the market -- something else her team is working on. Yet her adventure, particularly through Startup America, has lead to some unexpected connections. And, who knows, perhaps she'll find herself making the classic pivot into markets other than games.

In fact, GameSkunk has already found a niche market with doctors treating various psychological conditions, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder. Smell, of course, is a powerful memory trigger, and psychologists at the University of Southern California are incorporating Coleman's technology into its treatment regimen for helping vets deal with PTSD. Using a simulator, they run a program called "Virtual Iraq" that creates a 360-degree interactive environment that, thanks to Sensory Acumen, emits all sorts of odors vets encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan. This system will be on hand at CES so attendees can get a sense -- and scent -- of how it all works.

Coleman says she has also heard from automakers and retailers. "Some have come to us and said they want the smell of certain products pushed out into aisles," she said. So while her aim is to launch GameSkunk in the consumer market around the middle of 2013, perhaps we'll be smelling her work before then without even realizing it.

 

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