‘Scent alerts’ for train stations set to cue JR’s distracted commuters

by Liam Gleason

Special To The Japan Times

Picture this: You’re on a packed rush-hour train, listening to music on your headphones and reading your smartphone. It’s too crowded to see your destination, and you miss your stop.

In the not-too-distant future, you won’t even need to look up. It will be your nose that tells you where to get off.

Is that a whiff of beer hops? You’re in Ebisu. Warm crepes? That’ll be Harajuku. Smell an ocean breeze? Hamamatsu-cho awaits.

If all goes according to plan, all 30 stations on the Yamanote, Tokyo’s central loop line, will have unique “scent alerts” functioning much like the current platform melodies.

This innovative idea, plus many more, are part of a larger vision called EkiKA, in which East Japan Railway Co. (JR East) is making extensive use of what are known as “action-oriented aromas.”

“JR East truly wants to explore the full potential of AOA,” said Mika Morita, an early pioneer in the scent-marketing field and the EkiKA project leader since 2008.

According to Morita, an ad agency got the ball rolling in the mid-2000s, when it enlisted her to develop a way to scent a train car for a special campaign. Although JR East rejected the idea, it did pique the interest of forward-looking executives who were interested in not only enhancing commutes, but also boosting profits.

Speaking at her research lab in Tokyo’s Yoyogi district, Morita said JR East initially tasked her with creating aromas that entice customers to the food counters of their in-station shopping areas.

JR East clearly smelled a winner. After successful results, it asked the aroma specialist to join its Commuter Innovation Division.

“We already know that our olfactory system controls instinctual behavior,” Morita said, explaining the concept of sense marketing. “Through an evolved sense of smell, animals can identify safe food or dangerous predators. And, as perfume makers know, it’s how we single out and lure suitable mates.

“Similarly, it’s been proven that the right scents can stimulate appetites and even subliminally induce actions.”

Morita was given several years to find how to control the right scents on a massive scale. After several years of trial and error, the EkiKA project made its first real-world foray with action-oriented aromas.

For the initial AOA test, which took place at an undisclosed location, a subtle peppermint/eucalyptus blend was wafted into trains running in the morning. In the evening, weary commuters were treated to a calming lavender-based scent.

“We learned so much during this trial,” said Shizuko Hanada, head of the Commuter Innovation division. The team made great progress with industrial-strength nebulizers that can emit a fine dry mist of aromatic molecules. It allowed them to efficiently release scents that didn’t linger or bond with clothing material.

“Calibrating the perfect volume of molecules was the toughest task,” Hanada recounted. “We could have easily put a train of commuters straight to sleep.”

To the team’s surprise, though, local companies later reported a noticeable increase in productivity.

Emboldened by their successful trial, Hanada now views scents as a new way to provide meaningful signals and lessen distracting noise: “We know that platform feedback is overwhelming and stressful — the signage, the announcements, even the melodious chimes. Aromas, however, connect on a more subconscious level.”

With this in mind, Hanada said, JR East is also envisioning aromas as a possible deterrent.

Tokyo’s overcrowded train carriages are one of the railway operator’s biggest headaches.

“People invariably rush for the carriage closest to platform stairwells and overload those cars,” Hanada said. “There’s not much we can do to stop them.”

However, with powerful nebulizers attached to carriage exteriors, a specific train car could emit microbursts of an ammonia-based odor at the appropriate times. “Only people with a very dull sense of smell will be able to get near a deterrent-emitting car,” Hanada added.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Morita said her team has also been investigating the strategic neutralization of offensive onboard smells. Interactive sensors may be employed to detect overpowering odors resulting from poor hygiene or alcohol-related mishaps.

“Rather than cover it up with flowery notes, we’re focusing on scents based on traditional charcoal and pine that can absorb foul smells,” she revealed.

As for the station scent alerts, Morita said they’re still under development. The smell of incense has been proposed for Sugamo, fishmongers for Okachimachi and musty books for Kanda, but Morita admitted that reaching a consensus for 30 unique scents will not be easy.

With that in mind, JR is sponsoring a survey in which anyone can vote. An English version can be found here.

What smell should represent Tokyo Station? Let JR know. Participants in the survey will qualify for a lottery to win multilingual scratch-and-sniff cards that will — once the project launches — help commuters identify the station-alert scents.