Virtual reality technology has penetrated just about every one of our five senses, except for one: taste. Well, that’s about to change.
A team of researchers led by Nimesha Ranasinghe at the National University of Singapore have developed a digital simulator capable of transmitting the taste of virtual food and drink to the tongue. Its designers envision the synthesizer being used in tandem with visual content like video games or television shows. For example, TV viewers might one day be able to taste foods being prepared on cooking shows.
“In a gaming environment we could come up with a new reward system based on taste sensations,” Ranasinghe told New Scientist. “For example, if you complete a game task successfully, or complete a level, we can give a sweet, minty or sour reward. If you fail we can deliver a bitter message.”
The device consists of a small silver electrode attached to the tip of the tongue. By slightly alternating the current and temperature of the semiconductor, taste receptors can be fooled by signals that replicate the four major tastes: salty, sweet, sour and bitter.
Although the electrical and thermal stimulation is noninvasive, the prototype is tethered to the operating system and must be manually held to the tongue. However, researchers hope a redesign will one day yield a wireless device that can be worn with the mouth closed.
Entertainment application aren’t the only way Ranasinghe foresees the device being used. He also imagines healthcare applications.
“People with diabetes might be able to use the taste synthesiser to simulate sweet sensations without harming their actual blood sugar levels,” he said. “Cancer patients could use it to improve or regenerate a diminished sense of taste during chemotherapy.”
Since smell and texture are vital to the taste experience, Ranasinghe and company hope to add those elements to future versions of the simulator. In the meantime, check out this mouth-watering video of the interface in action. If they could only replicate the pork nachos I had last night, I’d be willing to stick an electrode on my tongue right now.
Credit: Nimesha Ranasinghe