Look at all that wonderful food. While it would be great to actually settle down to eat this feast in its entirety, that would almost certainly create some of the worst stomach pains imaginable, not to mention the mess. There’s got to be a better way. And it’s possible that better way may come from Nimesha Ranasinghe and her team at the National University of Singapore, who have created a digital simulator that allows the tongue to taste virtual food. Sounds ridiculous, right? Let’s see how this works.
A silver electrode is placed on the tip of the tongue, and it transmits signals that mimic those taste sensations we know so well: salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. It’s all due to varying alternating currents and a semiconductor that rapidly changes temperature from hot to cold. None of this sounds like it’d be able to make you feel like you were eating peanuts and sour apple Jolly Ranchers, but I’m willing to suspend some disbelief.
“We have found that noninvasive electrical and thermal stimulation of the tip of the tongue successfully generates the primary taste sensations,” Renasinghe stated. They have developed a “taste over Internet protocol” that allows for simple data transmission to the electrode for different tastes to come through. Maybe one day we’ll be able to Google apple pie, or at least a tasty facsimile.
In its current for, the device is far from perfect, and doesn’t incorporate the fifth umami flavor yet. Nor does it work with smells and textures, both of which are large parts of what we guides our taste receptors, but they’re working on it. If Japanese researchers ever get the Smellovision into people’s homes, this is the obvious next step. Second screen, schmeckond schmeen.
In fact, there is a second product being worked on called a digital lollipop that mimics a continuous blast of sugar, without any actual calories. This could potentially help curb people of sugary foods and drinks, and while it won’t end obesity, it’s certainly a step in the right direction, and a strange one at that.
All of this talk immediately makes me think of watching shows like Chopped and Top Chef, hoping to one day taste the more interesting improvised dishes without having to be a part of the show myself. But it’s not even all about food.
“In a gaming environment we could come up with a new reward system based on taste sensations,” Ranasinghe says. “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.” You can bet Rockstar would have some interesting ways to take that for an entry in their Grand Theft Auto franchise.
Take a look at the device in action below.
Just think, stoners of the future will be able to use their PiePal devices to call and order a pizza, but won’t have to wait until the food arrives to taste it. And when food packaging becomes edible, we can taste that too. Mmm, cheesy cardboard.