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The Juice: Dr. Jenny Tillotson and eScent

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Nina’s morning commute is always tough—pushing through crowds into a packed train. It makes her feel stressed and anxious. The air quality is poor today, too, both in and out of the train carriage, but Nina doesn’t have to worry about that because her personal air purifier is working hard to clean up pollution and allergens. Her scent bubble is working at full tilt to keep the invigorating aroma of bergamot and neroli swirling around her nose instead of the ripe perfume of a fellow commuter’s armpit. The scent calms her and makes the journey tolerable. Nina prefers citrus fragrances for this purpose and makes sure her monthly subscription box of eScent cartridges always includes a generous supply.

She gets off the train and taps the app on her smartphone to turn the scent bubble off for now—the dentist’s office she works at has been declared a fragrance-free zone. She’ll enjoy her favorite rose and amber perfume later when she meets her new boyfriend—it’s a scent Nina mixes herself from the top, middle and base accords available through eScent. It will radiate from her gorgeous black dress all evening.

At noon, her smartphone notifies her of dangerously low blood sugar levels—Nina’s type 1 diabetes is well-monitored by the sensors embedded in her bracelet. While eating lunch, Nina remembers she needs to order some mosquito repellent for next week’s holiday—it will quietly sit in tiny capsules embedded in her clothing until an unwelcome buzzing sound emitted at a specific frequency will trigger its release.

A Fashion Futurologist

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The near-future vision of Dr. Jenny Tillotson in 1997 went something like this: by now, fashion, technology and science will have sufficiently moved on to support the multidisciplinary concepts that were emerging in the public consciousness back then. The world of smart biosensors, drug delivery systems, personalised fragrance, individual scent bubbles; the ability to turn fragrance on and off—and a new era of second skin fabrics with fragrance delivery systems embedded into them—would be here by 2017.

Alas, Jenny was ahead of her time in 1997 when she worked on her Ph.D. and she is still ahead of her time now, but no longer by that much. The zeitgeist has caught up completely and the technology is only moments away. Some of it is already here.

This is no longer science fiction. It is fast becoming fashion reality.

Jenny is fond of the Alan Kay quote: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

There is a revolution going on in our relationship with technology and gadgets. From subtle services which may not even register (algorithms in online stores predicting what we might like to buy next) to autonomous cars and smart homes—we are already at a highly computerized, tech-savvy age where toddlers think iPads are normal toys. Google Glass was innovative, but in 2014, Google patented an electronic lens that can be surgically inserted into the human eye and connect to wireless devices, adjust the eye’s focus and take photos.

We are not as far away from the kind of implant-enhanced human science fiction writer, Peter Hamilton, has imagined.

However, scent refuses to be digitized and has so far resisted all attempts to do so. It is unlikely we will ever be able to do away with having to have physical odor materials present at the point of scent transmission (nor would a juiceless future be particularly appealing to fragrance companies). So the main problem is still sufficient advancement in miniaturization and specialized delivery technology. Because we’ll always be limited by how much scent can be stored in an object, current ‘wearables’ in scent have more in common with Medieval pomanders than modern technology.

The fact that there has been a recent upsurge in interest towards some kind of wearable scent device does indicate readiness of the market to accept Dr. Tillotson’s eScent1 concept.

“The physical and digital realms are set to merge in new ways with the introduction of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and the ‘Internet of Things.’ Interactions are in flux too, as digital interfaces become increasingly intuitive, touchable and tactile thanks to new cognitive technology and haptic interfaces, and even conversational (with help from Amazon Echo and Facebook Messenger),” says Lucie Greene, worldwide director of The Innovation Group.

A recent Innovation Group report1 published jointly with Women’s Wear Daily details SONAR2 study findings which discovered that the assumptions we’ve made about generational attitudes to all things digital may not be correct. They found that while some generational differences persist, a large number of boomers are shopping more like millennials and are ripe for targeting by digital-savvy brands. Generation Z’ers are especially open to experimental new technology and brands are exploring AI and virtual reality to give these adventurous consumers what they crave.

The Wellness Concept

“My husband is into science fiction. He is a fashion designer and worked for Thierry Mugler for 15 years. He told me all about these scifi stories and how they could enhance my vision. One of them was Ubik by Philip K. Dick,” says Jenny. Ubik is of course a dystopian novel and not exactly the most cheerful inspiration, but it put the thought of novel scent transmission into Jenny’s mind.

“I’m still developing the technology,” says Jenny, “it’s still in very early stages because it’s so complex, but I’m being shortlisted for various awards and have won some, too. The device releases a liquid; could be fragrance or insect repellent or a combination of both, and the ‘scent bubble’ gets formed wherever you need it to.”

The miniaturized device concept Jenny has patented dispenses a liquid base on sensed properties—be they specific sound frequencies, changes in body temperature, pulse or any number of potential measurements (Jenkins, Tillotson, 2006).

Monitoring stress responses could lead to huge quality of life improvements for many people—even something as simple as reacting to excess sweating by releasing a deodorizing fragrance direct from your clothing. This would go far beyond microencapsulation.

Dr. Tillotson is working with the University of Cambridge to detect and repel mosquitoes with further plans to design clinical trials looking at how technology like this could have medical applications—for example diagnosing early stage Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and Altzheimer’s.

“This is clearly still in the future, but imagine you could have these fabrics with embedded technology where you can place it in the areas you’re most likely to need it,” Jenny explains.

Investigating the mood-altering and health claims of essential oils has also been a large part of Jenny’s work, although the word ‘aromatherapy’ has proved toxic when talking to scientists and engineers, so Jenny is looking for new approaches. Aromatherapy is usually associated with unproven alternative therapies like homeopathy and while there is some real research into the potential pharmacological effects of essential oils, merely referring to essential oils is sometimes enough to undermine scientific credibility.

Jenny started her career in fashion styling but quickly became interested in science and in how art, fashion, science and technology could be combined to create something new.

Science fiction wasn’t the main inspiration for Jenny’s research. It was only after volunteering for an AIDS charity and facing personal health challenges that her attention turned to a high-tech ‘wellness’ concept.

“I am particularly interested in wellbeing,” says Tillotson, “I have always wanted to create emotional support clothing.”

“I was working at an MIT spin-off on wearable technology from 2000-2001—and this was way before wearable technology was kind of out there. They had various technology projects going on at the time. My PhD at Royal College of Art (1994-1997) explored wearable technology ideas and was called Interactive Olfactory Surfaces (Tillotson, 1997), so it was really just looking at other ways of delivering fragrances in fabric and jewellery,” she reminisces.

“At one point I was doing a lot of work with the Terrence Higgins Trust and was a buddy volunteer for many people with HIV and AIDS. I didn’t do it for very long, but I also burned out a bit myself - having worked in styling and glamorous media—it all became a bit too much. So I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and part of the research was trying to heal myself. Find my center.”

“I met John Ayres who was at Givaudan at the time and sent me to visit them in Switzerland. Roman Kaiser remembered my talk years later and told me ‘you were really ahead of your time’—even though back then they all thought I was deeply nutty,” Jenny laughs.

Science is Slower than Fashion

Since Jenny’s Ph.D., there have been many products with some kind of wearable scent element—mostly in the form of fragrant jewellery, like the new Lockstone jewellery by Vanacci. They feature a porous pumice stone designed to clip into a metal necklace or cufflinks and when the stone is fragranced, it holds the scent for several more hours than skin would. Users impregnate the stone with their own fine fragrance. Or the gold and silver jewellery from Lisa Hoffman beauty—necklaces resembling seed pods and pomander baubles on bracelets are filled with powdery fragrant pellets which are fragranced with a selection of in-house scents.

At the luxury end, By Kilian and Diane Kordas supply jewel-encrusted precious metal urns and statement pendants which also carry scent.

All of these still follow the pomander model in some ways and have moved the design elements along quite nicely, but the technology only incrementally.

What Jenny is proposing is much bigger than a carrier of fragrance, a scented object or an ornament—her ambition is to marry new research into the effectiveness of aroma materials on health and mood with new technology and possible pharmaceutical applications. Her idea of how scent could integrate with our lives is bigger than a novelty trinket. It could be a revolution in scent as big as the MP3 players were for music.

Some projects are beginning to circle around the concepts Jenny has been working with—Scenti8 used hacked e-cigarette technology to create scent memory bracelets for astronauts who suffer from loss of sense of smell and homesickness in space.3 Or what about CuteCircuit, a London-based fashion house who have been producing fabric-embedded technology since 2004 (they started with the ‘hug’ shirt that can send targeted warmth to a wearer). Their latest project is fabric lit up with micro LED-lights.

While good design will make the end products appealing to consumers, they will only stand out from non-high tech analogs when there are clear consumer benefits beyond gimmickry and the final product fulfils or creates needs.

Customization

People are looking for increasingly personalized products and experiences. Customization is an important trend in many segments and fragrances are no different. In some ways, customers’ hunger for niche and artisanal products is one of the biggest indicators of this.

Glade’s Museum of Feelings in New York City in 2015 took visitors through a multisensory tour in order to gather enough data to generate individual mood profiles which were used to create personalised scent recommendations.

One of Jenny’s earliest projects was a concept dress which could carry top, middle and base notes for the wearer to fine tune into their own scent. Responding to mood and occasion would be instantaneous and entirely personalized.

A 2014 University of Cambridge report by Beale, Kwan and Bentham found that prospective customers emphasized the personalization and customization aspects of eScent, not the tech-gimmick-wearable elements.

A Fragrant Frontier

According to Frontier(less) Retail report4, Topshop became the latest mainstream retailer to align itself with wearable tech in April 2016 by creating a start-up incubator called Top Pitch. L’Oreal, too, wants to be seen as a tech brand and the company has partnered with the Univeristy of Illinois to develop flexible, wearable electronic circuits. In 2013 Uniqlo president Tadashi Yanai noted that “Uniqlo is not a fashion company, it’s a technology company.”

Tillotson wants eScent to be primarily seen as a service rather than a ‘wearable tech’ product, responding to market research and the desires expressed by her target market. “Although some might consider this project to be high risk, it is a general fact that creative and ‘novel’ research originates from multi-disciplinary fields,” she wrote in her 1997 Ph.D.

The biggest barrier for eScent is miniaturization. This is going to happen—it’s just a matter of how and when. Success will rely on skilfully combining technology, art, killer apps, design and well-targeted marketing.

 

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Dr. Jenny Tillotson

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Tillotson’s idea for a “scent bubble” blends fragrance, fashion and technology.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jenny Tillotson

Fabrics with embedded scent delivery systems could give us a second skin.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jenny Tillotson

References

G.Jenkins, J. Tillotson, (2006), A System and Method for Dispensing Fluid in Response to a Sensed Property; 0426382.8

Tillotson, Jenny (1997) Interactive olfactory surfaces: The Wellness Collection: a science fashion story. Ph.D. thesis, Royal College of Art.

Footnotes

1 eScent is a registered trademark of eScent Technologies

2 SONAR is a registered trademark of Innovation Group

3 http://technical.ly/philly/2014/04/18/leslie-birch-nasa-space-apps/

4 https://www.jwtintelligence.com/trend-reports/frontierless-retail/

Author Bio

Pia Long, consultant, Pia.Long@VolatileFiction.co.uk

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