Japanese researchers reveal a new gadget that lets people taste virtual food

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

As people start thinking about living more in the virtual world companies want them to be able to experience the same things they do in the real world.

 

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As we start getting used to the idea of being able to live our lives in both the real world and the virtual world, thanks to developments in Mixed Reality (MR) and Virtual Reality (VR). So far I’ve shown you ways we can increasingly immerse ourselves in the latter thanks to new haptic clothes that give you a sense of touch and let you interact with people and objects in these worlds, electromagnetic floors that let you walk through them without ever leaving the confines of your living room, and much more. And now, in another development, a team of scientists from Japan have developed a new product that let’s you taste food virtually.

 

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We’re used to measuring our digital devices by how fast they are, how clear the sound is, how crisp the display is, how large the storage capacity is, but some day soon, if Homei Miyashita has his way, we may measure them by how delicious they are.

The Meiji University researcher has developed a handheld “lickable screen” device that, when inserted into your mouth, can recreate all taste sensations associated with food.

 

Learn more about the technology
 

The device relies on electrolytes inserted into five gels controlling the intensity of the five basic flavours – sour, sweet, bitter, salt and umami. The lesser-known term umami, derived from the Japanese word for a pleasant savoury taste, was added to the basic tastes group relatively recently, in 1990.

 

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The process works by using electrophoresis, which is the “migration of microscopic particles activated by an electric charge.” When the five  tube device touches the tongue, the subject perceives all five taste sensations. But when variously measured electrical charges are applied, in low enough voltage to do no harm, some tastes can be heightened while others recede.

Miyashita compared the manipulation of taste perception to our perceptions of images on video monitors. Our eyes view beautiful images on the screen, but in fact they are merely a series of continuously pulsating red, green and blue pixels of varying combinations and intensities.

“Like an optical display that uses lights of three basic colours to produce arbitrary colours,” Miyashita said in his research paper published on the Meiji University web site, “this display can synthesize and distribute arbitrary tastes together with the data acquired by taste sensors.”

 

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He termed his device the Norimaki Synthesizer. Norimaki are a type of seaweed wrapped around sushi. In fact, in one of his experiments, Miyashita enhanced the subject’s experience by wrapping the synthesizer in dried seaweed as he boosted the salt and sour tastes to more closely mimic the sensation of consuming sushi.

The synthesizer, Miyashita said, “has allowed users to experience the flavour of everything from gummy candy to sushi without having to place a single item of food in their mouths.”

The concept promises great pleasure to passengers on no-frills flights, for instance, who could enjoy a flavuorful virtual steak or ice-cream sundae with no muss and no fuss. Of course, when and if it is introduced into the general population, early pioneers may well draw curious stares from neighbouring passengers if they whip out their computer devices and start licking them. But aside from its entertainment value, the Norimaki Synthesizer may prove to be an invaluable tool for those working on weight management. Others, for example, such as those with hypertension who must restrict salt intake, might combine real food while employing the device that adds virtual salt to their heart’s content.

 

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In his abstract, Miyashita acknowledged his interest was spurred by earlier research efforts of Hiromi Nakamura, who in 2011 achieved “augmented gustation” by sending electrical charges through chop sticks, forks and straws to create tastes humans could not perceive solely with their tongues. These efforts are reminiscent of similar efforts to apply not taste but smell to augment a subject’s experience.

In 1959, Charles Weiss, a public relations executive, created AromaRama that distributed scents of grass, exploding firecrackers, incense, burning torches and horses through the theatre’s air-conditioning system during the first showing of “Behind the Great Wall.” But the effort spurred legendary New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther to write: “Check off the novel experience as… a stunt. The artistic benefit of it is here demonstrated to be nil.”

 

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The next year, inventor Hans Laube introduced a supposedly improved Smell-O-Vision with the release of his movie “Scent of Mystery” where the thriller was augmented by smells such as freshly baked bread, wine, an ocean breeze or a skunk delivered through beneath-the-seat tubes. Certain smells offered clues to imminent activity on the screen, such as pipe tobacco smoke that was released whenever the killer appeared. But viewers complained of uneven or delayed distribution of smells, and the distracting noises of viewers struggling to sniff each scent. For fans and critics, the movie was a stinker. Famed comedian Henry Youngman quipped, “I didn’t understand the picture. I had a cold.”

While being able to experience the virtual world with the same depth of experiences and engagement as we see in the real world is still some way off though as you can see we’re getting closer to the time when we may not be able to distinguish one from the other.

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