Taking an online tour of the vineyards and wine cellars of Burgundy may not be limited to just sights and sounds in the future. A trade group plans to offer the smells of Burgundy through its Web site as well.
The Bureau Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bourgogne (BIVB) has been working with communications giant France Télécom on the development of a computer peripheral, called the Olfacom, that can pump out aromas such as hay, flowers and fruit, using a combination of essential oils stored in its several tanks.
The BIVB demonstrated a prototype of the Olfacom -- two, foot-tall plastic columns plugged into a laptop -- at the London International Wine and Spirits Fair last week. Nelly Blau-Picard, BIVB export marketing manager, explained that France Télécom patented the concept in 1999 and then developed the technology to transmit aromas via communication networks. After that, she said, "they had to find a suitable website for the technology, so of course in France, they think wine."
The BIVB developed a Web site that could take advantage of the scent capability in a virtual tour. For example, after clicking on the "winemaking" icon, animation begins on-screen, showing workers in a winery unloading Pinot Noir. As a voice states "the first and vital task is to sort the grapes," the smell of black currant wafts from the Olfacom. An icon at the bottom of the screen notifies the user what they smell.
"It can only do basic smells," explained Blau-Picard. "[It] can not go over all the different smells in Burgundy wines, so we stick to the simple smells."
The display was greeted with mixed reactions from visitors at the fair. "It seems to work very well," said Steven Meyer-Rassow, who works for a U.K. wine retailer. "But then, I like gadgets anyway. And it's like having an air freshener in your room."
However, Meyer-Rassow's colleague, Ken Browne, complained that a computer that offers the smells of Burgundy is pointless. "It's no good without taste," he said. "Taste is the most integral part to wine tours."
For now, the Olfacom is not for sale as it is being redesigned, and the new BIVB site will not be accessible until then. "They hope to develop something smaller, that fits onto the side of the computer," Blau-Picard said. Ultimately, Web surfers should be able to buy the product at a computer store, hook it up and get a whiff of Burgundy at www.vins-bourgogne.fr.
Olfacom is not the first of its kind. In 1999, a company called DigiScents was developing iSmells technology that could transit smells to computer users through scent synthesizers. DigiScents hoped that its technology would soon be on perfume retailer Web sites and in video games, but the company closed in April 2001.
Blau-Picard does not anticipate a similar future for Olfacom. France Télécom has more financial muscle to back its ambitious plans; the company envisions that, within a few years, all French tourism sites will have Olfacom capability.
"Many [wine] professionals are also showing interest," she said. "They want to be a part of something that they have never seen available on the market."
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