Imagine you are purchasing a perfume as a gift for someone in your life. You visit the store, touch and inspect the bottles, smell-test the perfumes, feel their weight and size, and end up making a purchase. In this scenario, your purchase was driven by the use of multiple senses. For decades, marketers have focused on creating immersive experiences, recognizing that the strategic use of multiple senses can attract and engage consumers in physical retail settings. Although there are many opportunities to implement multi-sensory experiences in physical retail stores, these experiences have been limited in online e-commerce environments. Currently, consumers online are restricted by technology that focuses on only two senses, sight and sound. However, all of this is expected to change with the emerging Internet of Senses.
What is the Internet of Senses?
Over 20 years ago, the term Internet of Things (IoT) was created to describe all objects that are connected to the Internet through a network. In the last few years, the Internet of Senses (IoS) has emerged as a similar term, representing the ways in which technology interacts with our senses. The Internet of Senses creates a network of sensory events, and is expected to make a multi-sensory experience in the digital realm possible.
Many of the technologies that are expected to enable the Internet of Senses already exist. The Internet of Senses is anticipated to rely on artificial intelligence, and augmented/virtual reality to deliver these experiences conveniently to consumers. Alongside these technologies, automation is anticipated to play a role in the implementation of this digitization. The Internet of Senses, empowered through these technologies, is expected to shape the future of 5G-enabled digital experiences, especially within marketing and e-commerce. By 2030, the Ericsson Consumer Trends Report reveals that the Internet of Senses will impact consumers in many ways, enabling the digitization of senses in a variety of contexts.
Image Source: https://www.ericsson.com/en/reports-and-papers/consumerlab/reports/10-hot-consumer-trends-2030
How will the Internet of Senses Affect E-commerce and Marketing?
As mentioned previously, marketers have leveraged the senses in physical stores for a long time, aiming to influence consumer behavior through the ability to smell, taste, and touch the product. Sound has also been widely used in retail environments to influence mood and purchase behavior. In the future, it is anticipated that our senses will be completely immersed when shopping online, enhancing our e-commerce experiences, and shaping the retail industry for marketers and consumers alike.
Smell the Roses
Scents have a tremendous impact on purchase behavior and have been leveraged by marketers in many contexts to influence consumers. In fact, the addition of scents in physical purchase environments has been found to increase purchase intent by 80% and increase product ratings by 25%. This is because the olfactory process, the process of smelling, bypasses a specific structure of the brain and allows scents to be effectively registered without conscious processing, triggering positive and negative emotions almost immediately.
In the past, a team of Japanese researchers have attempted to make “smell-o-vision” a reality by incorporating fans, heating pumps, and odor cartridge slots into television screens in order to release digital scents into the air with directional accuracy. Alternatively, Headspace technology leverages an apparatus to record a scent that is then sent in for analysis, where the consumer later receives a capsule of the scent via mail. The MIT Media Lab has developed a pneumatic pump controlled by cellular devices, which vacuums a scent in through a pump and infuses the scent into a gelatin capsule.
Ultimately, capturing a scent relies on the ability to capture molecules of the desired scent, something that science is still working on developing through technology. Instead of relying solely on sight and sound to shop online, the incorporation of scent through our devices will potentially change the way that consumers interact with e-commerce. Through the Internet of Senses, consumers can possibly smell the products that they are purchasing online through their devices, enhancing decision making for scent-based products. With the widespread adoption of this technology, the online purchase of products, like fragrances and candles, will likely increase, and returns of these products will likely decrease. This is because consumers will have a more immersive experience that allows them to interact with the product and test it digitally.
Research has shown that scents are easily memorized and associated with events and emotions and that people can recall up to ten thousand scents. Consequently, marketers will be able to digitally tap into consumers memories, influencing their purchasing behavior through emotion. Not only will marketers be able to leverage this technology in digital fragrance and candle contexts, they will also be able to implement an olfactory logo (scent logo) on their e-commerce platform that will help to create a strong brand identity for online consumers. In the future, the implementation of the Internet of Senses will amplify the effects of this sensory branding, allowing every e-commerce platform to share a signature scent with online consumers once they enter the website. In the distant future, once this technology is fully adopted, marketing campaigns may be able to trigger customer emotions like nostalgia and happiness through the use of this technology by leveraging scents that tap into these emotions. Ultimately, the ability to digitize smell will allow e-commerce marketers to trigger customer emotions, create a brand identity and influence consumer purchase behaviors through the effective use of scents in the digital environment.
Taste a Sample
Think about how many times you have tasted a sample in a grocery store and how that may have influenced your purchase decision. Now imagine tasting a sample of tea or coffee online, trying different flavors until you find the perfect one to buy. This digital taste-testing will be enabled by the Internet of Senses, further enhancing the e-commerce experience, and allowing consumers to sample products digitally.
Studies are already underway to develop technologies that will allow consumers to taste products digitally. Researchers have used electrical and thermal stimulations to the tongue to allow sourness and saltiness sensations to be evoked in users. Taste simulators, including the “digital lollipop”, have been created using these stimulations to the tongue to digitally simulate various flavours for the user. Similarly, the Norimaki Synthesizer, uses a five-tube device to mix salty, acidic, sweet, bitter and umami tastes by applying various electrical charges to each tube to create specific flavors.
An interesting application of this technology is the Vocktail, a virtual cocktail that is made out of plain water. The special martini glass is filled with electrodes, LED lights and scent cartridges, allowing the user to control how sweet or sour the drink is, as well as the scent that they would like to experience. Similarly to the other devices, the use of electrodes allows the waters flavor to be manipulated, without the addition of flavoring.
With more than forty percent of consumers anticipating the ability to digitally taste samples, these technological advancements will have tremendous impacts on e-commerce, likely increasing overall purchases of food and beverage products that otherwise would have been purchased primarily in stores. This technology will also influence digital marketing, opening up an array of options for immersive consumer experiences online. With these devices, marketers will be able to leverage taste by allowing consumers to browse and taste-test product flavors. Once these devices are widely accepted, they will change the ways that we interact with online shopping, and will make taste-testing an essential part of decision-making in an online environment. When paired with virtual and augmented reality, these devices will allow marketers to transport consumers to a new multi-sense digital environment. Imagine visiting a travel website, and being instantly transported to a tropical destination, with a piña colada in hand. The consumer will be able to taste the cocktail, but without the alcohol content (for now, at least!)
Feel the Fabrics
The Internet of Senses proposes to allow consumers to experience touch digitally. Currently, touch haptic technology is limited to vibrations, primarily in video game contexts. More recently, a virtual reality device has been created out of a soft, thin bandage-like material that leverages vibrations to simulate touch for users. External hardware has also been developed for smartphones, allowing users to feel sensations, such as that of touching keys on a keyboard.
Alternatively, EPFL researchers have created inflating capsules that stimulate the sense of touch in virtual reality.
Although this technology is still in the early stages of development, in the future, wearable technology is anticipated to improve our sense of touch by stimulating the nerves when online shopping, allowing consumers to feel weight, motion, and textures. Envision feeling the texture of a pillow or the fabric of a sweater digitally, reducing barriers to purchase that consumers feel when they often shop online. In the future, this technology will allow marketers to leverage the textures and fabrics of products in marketing materials more effectively, as consumers will be able to feel the product that they are actually referring to. Rather than guaranteeing the softest fabrics, marketing efforts can allow consumers to feel it for themselves. In the distant future, emotion-fuelled advertising may become commonplace, with digital touch allowing consumers to feel a hug that is happening within the commercial, ultimately improving marketing and advertising efforts.
Concerns of the Internet of Senses: Cost and Privacy
Although the Internet of Senses is promising and would greatly enhance e-commerce, there are some concerns surrounding the technology. These concerns stem from the fact that the technology is currently quite expensive and has privacy risks.
Although many of the mentioned technologies are not on the market for consumers, those that have been quoted with prices come at a steep cost. For example, the smartphone device that allows users to experience sensation touch (haptic) sensations retails for $2000. Due to such high costs associated with these digital multi-sensory devices, there is concern about how easily the technology will be adapted unless prices drop significantly.
Furthermore, forty percent of urban early adopters expect that advertisers will leverage our personal digital sensory information. Ultimately, the data that is leveraged by the Internet of Sense is very personal information, and the use of this data tell marketers a lot about an individual. As these technologies become widely used, digital data laws will have begin to regulate the use of this data. Questions emerge: who owns the data that you like certain smells or certain tastes?
The future of digital sense-based marketing and e-commerce is on the horizon. By leveraging artificial intelligence, virtual reality, automation and other technologies, the barriers to online shopping will ultimately be reduced, as consumers will have an immersive experience from the comfort of their own homes. Once widely accessible, these devices will bridge the gap between e-commerce and the senses, improving the online shopping experience and creating countless new opportunities for marketers.
Marketing Coordinator, Estée Lauder Cosmetics
Past Editor: Future of Marketing Magazine
Graduate: Master of Marketing Program, Schulich School of Business