Digital Stick Serves Up the Real Taste of Virtual Food

A researcher created a digital device capable of recreating the taste of virtual food via electrical stimulation of the tongue.
Brad Bergan
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Researchers have developed a "lickable screen" device capable of recreating taste sensations associated with food when in contact with a human tongue, according to a study recently shared on the ACM Digital Library.


Digital device simulates taste of virtual food

The device uses electrolytes inserted into five colored gels — each controlling intensity levels of five basic flavors: bitter, salt, umami, sweet, and sour. The less familiar term, umami, comes from the Japanese word for a pleasant and savory taste, added to the basic tastes group as recently as 1990.

The researcher Homei Miyashita of Meiji University created the virtual taste device.

Virtual taste is provided via electrophoresis — the migration of microscopic particles activated via electric charge. When the device's five tubes touch a tongue, the person subjectively perceives all five taste sensations. But when varying electrical charges are applied in lower, harmless voltages, some tastes may be amplified while others diminish.

Virtual taste as an image

Miyashita compared the device's ability to augment taste perception to the human perception of images or video monitors. Our eyes may see beautiful images on a screen and even form an emotional response, despite knowing that every image is nothing but a series of continuously pulsating red, blue, and green pixels of varying intensities and combinations.

"Like an optical display that uses lights of three basic colors to produce arbitrary colors," said Miyashita in his research paper — available on the Meiji University website. "This display can synthesize and distribute arbtirary tastes together with the data acquired by taste sensors."

He called his device the Norimaki Synthesizer, named after the seaweed norimaki that are generally wrapped around sushi. In one of his experiments Miyashita enhanced the test subject's experience by winding dried seaweed around the synthesizer while he boosted the sour and salt tastes to more accurately mimic the sensation of eating sushi.

Ever-ready cornucopia of virtual food

Miyashita added that the synthesizer "has allowed users to experience the flavor of everything from gummy candy to sushi without having to place a single item of food in their mouths."

It's interesting to note a dilemma that comes with virtual environments — namely, if we derive meaningful experiences from simulated objects, are we really simply duped by the illusion?

As a concept, we could see newer versions of the device giving passengers on no-frill flights the welcome distraction of virtual consumption, tasting a cornucopia of delicacies — from an ice-cream sundae to dripping-wet rare steak — without the risk of making a mess.

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