Brand Sensorama: Retail Immersion via the Five Senses

Whether for an experience, brand affiliation or product, we’re all after the ‘real thing’. Yet sensory stimulation increasingly means sensory simulation. And with new technology, the sensory deception happens somewhere below the surface. Dene October
There’s nothing new or ‘techy’ about simulation as stimulation. In the nineteenth century we reset the rural idyll in realistic urban panoramas. But enter the age of advertising, and you walk into a consumer jungle of competing visual publicity. One way to stand out is to conceal your advert, as Guinness World Records did, by attaching a silicon slogan to the leg of a bee – nobody sees it, but it’s conspicuous as promotion. A far better way is to acknowledge the existence of all five senses, then set your simulacra switch to overload.


The visual interface is traditionally the customer’s first point of contact. Mike Rosen’s 2Ce browser (pronounced to see) opens as a three-dimensional, cube-shape window, projecting onto three walls, ceiling and floor. Promotions for Swatch and for the film Me, Myself and Irene, used holograms to attract attention to the product.  Posters can offer streamed images as well as audio tracks, such as Saatchi’s for Action on Hearing Loss (see film). In future posters will also be scented and tactile.


Proctor and Gamble is experimenting with PC smell attachments that mix base aromas – in a similar way your printer combines colours – to create specific scents.  The same company has placed scratch-and-sniff labels onto its Whitening Crest range of toothpaste. Korean company Samsung has shown it is possible to fit a compact device to the back of a television that will generate thousands of odours. Retailers have already witnessed the allure of odour. Superdrug, for example, piped the scent of chocolate into its stores during the lead up to Valentine’s Day. Brands may be expected to look towards olfactory simulation to freshen up their image. Fashion retailers DKNY already associates with the smell of the New York deli – it helps if you serve cappuccino and toast bagels by your store entrance – while Thomas Pink makes good use of the scent of freshly laundered shirts. But what Orange or Virgin would smell like is anyone’s guess.

And how would they feel or sound? Remote gripping technology (see Ways of Touching) could result in more attention being paid to texture and the tactile qualities of the product. Packaging could reflect the ‘brand feel’ while online shoppers could feel ahead, say, a mohair sweater before buying.  Brands could also have their own taste.  

Scientists have developed e-tongues, using ultrathin films, which can discern the region of wine, as well as the quality of pure water and acidity of commercial beverages. Soon you may be able to kiss your husband in Tokyo while sitting at your PC in New York and he’ll smell, look, sound, feel and even taste the real thing. Turn his tobacco odour off and his cyber-imitation will indeed be the highest form of flattery. Products will also go hyper-real to offer the ultimate in sensory experience. Interbrew’s cocktail range Aftershock includes a pungent odour of cinnamon, lurid red tones and a taste you can ‘feel going all the way down,’ according to Nick Barham, who runs Profusion, BBH’s global cultural research unit. ‘These are all strong cues,’ he says, ‘that this drink will change the way you feel tonight’.

Sensual Transcendenz

We are constantly bombarded with information that requires our attention and yet which distracts us from knowing ourselves. The designer Michael Harboun has drawn together the concepts of augmented reality and social networks, to make visible the space for ideas, philosophy and reflection.
At a superficial level, Transcendenz is a witty piece of sci-fi hokum, yet its offer to connect us to a live immersive philosophical experience is an important comment on the culture of social media. Not only that, but also it proposes a moment to truly consider what the buzz of social media is hiding from us ... that space to think.
'The empty time is the most essential time', says Harboun. 'It is the time in which we are fully conscious about ourselves and our environment. It is the time in which we are sensitive to fundamental questionings and think about the existential; thoughts which bring us back to our human nature'.


Credible immersion will be the key to convincing experience. The Shiseido Cosmetics Garden, in Tokyo, is evidence of what Barham calls ‘the expansion of fashion into every category’. Nothing is for sale; instead the emphasis is on brand communication.

‘It is becoming less relevant to judge physical space by the direct income it generates,’ says Barham. ‘In a society where an increasing number of brands and activities compete for people’s attention, it is essential to offer places where people can touch and experience a brand.  Traditional advertising is not enough, and retail sites are too driven by efficiency to feel relaxed.’ 


With the proliferation of hand-held devices we are able to digitally connect to data, in the form of streamed video, audio and script. Ogmento has experimented with game concepts for augmented reality such as their X-Ray Vision Tank (see film page 2). Devices that offer augmented reality, such as Google Glasses (see film page 2), challenge our very notion of physical space. The question for many is, will we be able to differentiate our natural environment from the augmented brandscape? The MIT Media Lab has come up with the prototype to a wearable gestural interface that allows the user to connect between intangible data and the tangible world via movement – this immerses the user in data and pretty much places the issue of trust into the user’s hands.

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Towards a new understanding of the senses

 In 1972, John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing revolutionised the way we viewed art and publicity. Today’s researchers, cultural commentators and trend analysts are presenting equally invaluable ideas about all five senses

Advertisement for the Sensorama Machine which was invented in 1957 and provided the illusion of reality by using a 3-D motion picture comined with smell, stereo audio, vibrations to the seat and air blown into the hair

Michael Harboun:
uses the concept of augmented reality as a tool for personal reflection [FILM]