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Click-and-sniff computers due soon

NEW YORK (Reuters) -- Welcome to the era of click and sniff.

The nose may know what the computer can only guess at but virtual aromas may soon be wafting to a keyboard near you.

DigiScents Inc., a highly touted U.S. start-up seeking to give computers a sense of smell, on Wednesday said it had agreed to acquire SenseIT, Israeli-based developers of a rival scent-sensing technology.

The Oakland, California-based company bought SenseIT of Herzelia, Israel, in a stock-for-stock deal for which terms were not disclosed. The combined company will remain headquartered in Oakland and maintain a research facility in Israel.

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Joel Bellenson, DigiScents' co-founder and chief executive said the two companies' technology and patents complement each other and bolster DigiScents' lead in bringing together recent advances in genetic research and computing technology.

"We want to restore the physical world's tangibility, flavor and nuance to computers, and eventually -- with the convergence of electronics -- to television and telephones," Bellenson said.

SenseIT was co-founded by Eli Fisch, founder of Goldfish Interactive, one of the biggest online advertising production houses in Israel and a unit of global marketing giant BBDO Interactive. Its developers have close ties to researchers at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science.

Bellenson said that just as a few primary colors can be used to create thousands of shades, so too essential oils can be blended to create widely recognizable scents.

"What we are basically striving to create is the RGB of scents," Bellenson said, using the analogy of the Red Green Blue standard used to define television and computer monitors.

DigiScents' smell-sensing technology, which consumers can expect to begin seeing in advertising, shopping, travel and video-game settings as early as this Christmas season, promises to recreate thousands of different odors.

Widespread availability of the system should begin next year when it delivers a small consumer hardware device that connects to a personal computer. It can be used to blend 128 basic scents in a theoretically unlimited number of smells.

This and other recent developments in the field promise to rescue the technology from any whiff of association with failed scratch-and-sniff ads or Smell-O-Rama movie marketing schemes that previously made a joke of mass-marketed scent systems.

The DigiScents system builds on a nearly decade-old academic research breakthrough that decoded the olfactory genes which control the human sense of smell. Working with scientists involved in the research, DigiScents created a database that compares computer smell recordings to thousands of human tested smells. This human-machine interface opens the possibility of communicating a wide range of smells over electronic networks.

Adam Knapp, a technology researcher with Andersen Consulting in Palo Alto, California, who has been briefed by DigiScents on its plans, said the company stands to benefit from the rapidly falling cost of so-called electronic noses.

Existing artificial noses using gas chromatography can cost many tens of thousands of dollars. They are used by fragrance makers to dissect the chemical make-up of flowers, herbs, oils and other fragrances used to create perfumes.

A DigiScents spokesman said it plans to offer its iSmell scent machine to consumers by next year. Demonstration models of the device look like a pudgy high-tech flower vase. It comes with a fan and plugs in easily to the back of any standard personal computer. ISmell will retail for under $100, he said.

Thanks to recent advances in computer chips that promise to drive down artificial nose prices even lower in years to come, DigiScents plans to market its products for use with scented Web sites, movies, music, advertisements, new car promotions and interactive games. Already, more than 1,600 video game developers have signed up to incorporate smell technology into their software products, Bellenson said.

Rival Cyrano Sciences of Pasadena, California, offers a portable nose known inspired by the French comic character who triumphed in love in spite of his famously long beak.

Cyranose, as the product is known, aims to help the food industry maintain product quality, but a consumer version for PCs could follow within a few years, a Cyrano spokesman said.

DigiScents was founded by Bellenson and partner Dexster Smith, two young biotech entrepreneurs who also founded DoubleTwist, a leading publisher of human genomic data.

Building on their biotechnology expertise, DigiScents was formed to develop a system for digitizing and communicating smells over electronic networks, and thus freeing the basic human sense of smell from its classical physical moorings.

Since its unveiling a year ago, DigiScents has received $10 million in February from Pacific Century CyberWorks, the leading Chinese Internet media network and investment company based in Hong Kong. It has also formed alliance with Procter & Gamble Co., the world's leading consumer packaged goods manufacturer, and RealNetworks, the top supplier of Internet music and video delivery technology. Terms of both deals have yet to be revealed by the companies.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Andersen Consulting
Cyrano Sciences

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