Just imagine you are in a restaurant. A virtual restaurant. You feel as if you are really sitting at a table on a chair. You hear the chatter and plate clattering of your nearby diners. You see the posh lighting, finely decorated tables and velvety restaurant wallpaper. You pick up virtual menus and look through what you fancy eating. Maybe you can even smell the ambience of all that delicious food being prepared from in the chefs’ kitchen. But then, your meal arrives. It looks convincing and appetising, and you pick up your digital knife and fork to cut it up and try it…but it’s bland. There’s no mouth feel, no tingling taste buds…no eating experience.
The sense of taste is one which has often been overlooked in the world of technology. As graphic displays, audio speakers and even haptic devices have all advanced over the years, the idea of gustatory devices has been left in the dust. Not because people aren’t interested in making digital taste happen, but rather that a lot more research needs to be done to understand how we can make it a reality. The sense of taste is not quite as straightforward a sense as you may expect…
How does taste work?
Of course, one of the secrets to how we can appreciate the different flavours of what we eat is in the tens of thousands of taste buds in our tongue. Within each taste bud is a cluster of taste receptor cells. There are actually only five taste sensations the tongue can experience: sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness and umami/savouriness, which are triggered by the detection of sugar, sodium chloride, acids, alkaloids and glutamates respectively.
But how is it that can we taste the difference between lemon juice and vinegar if both are sour? That’s where your nose comes into play, as the sense of smell and taste are actually very closely linked. As you eat or drink, the chemicals in what you consume trigger the olfactory receptors in your nasal cavity as well as your taste buds, and it is the combination of these responses that signal flavours to your brain. Next time you eat something tasty, hold your nose while you put it in your mouth and chew…and it’s all but guaranteed you won’t have the gustatory explosion you would have felt in your mouth otherwise.
What will taste tech look like?
The world of taste-inducing technology is still in the conception stage, let alone its infancy. Due to the complex, chemical nature of our sense of taste, thinking of ways to simulate human taste sensations artificially and safely have proven difficult. No product or standard for taste-simulating technology currently exists in the market, and it’s currently impossible to break down smells into categories or elements. However, a few researchers have come up with some potential ideas as to how taste can work…
Tokyo University’s Takuji Narumi drew attention to the close link between the senses of smell and taste, and explored how exposure to different visual and olfactory stimuli could affect how we taste. At a computing conference in Canada in 2011, he demonstrated the Meta Cookie system, a head-mounted visual and olfactory display which was worn while eating an unflavoured biscuit. The headset’s display laid an image of a different-coloured biscuit over the original using augmented reality, as a perfume scent travelled through tubes attached to the nose.
In 2012, another team of researchers at the National University of Singapore, led by Nimesha Ranasinghe, explored how technology could tantalise the taste buds directly. They developed an experimental tongue-mounted device which aimed to replicate rudimentary taste sensations via controlled electrical stimulation. The results of this experiment found that the device was most effective at replicating sour taste sensations, and was capable of doing so in three degrees of intensity.
Six years later, another team of researchers proposed a similar taste-actuating interface of their own, this time activating the taste buds by changing temperature. This method could stimulate sweetness much better than any other taste, indicating that different taste sensations may require different strategies.
Where will we see taste tech used?
Imagine a culinary arts training simulation where you can actually learn what flavours to look out for when sampling your cooking. Or a virtual marketing campaign where you can sample beverages without physically having to drink them (want to taste a wine but need to drive back home?). Or maybe a virtual travel experience where you can actually get a taster for another country’s cuisine, all within one of our Portals perhaps!
Integrating the sense of taste into technology is still ages away from being a possibility, but it’s nonetheless exciting to think about the doors it’ll open up for what kind of immersive applications we can create.
Karunanayaka, K., Johari, N., Hariri, S., Camelia, H., Bielawski, K.S. & Cheok, A.D. (2018). New Thermal Taste Actuation Technology for Future Multisensory Virtual Reality and Internet. IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics. 24 (4). pp. 1496–1505.
Narumi, T., Nishizaka, S., Kajinami, T., Tanikawa, T. & Hirose, M. (2011). Augmented reality flavors: Gustatory display based on Edible Marker and cross-modal interaction. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems – Proceedings.
Ranasinghe, N., Nakatsu, R., Nii, H. & Gopalakrishnakone, P. (2012). Tongue Mounted Interface for Digitally Actuating the Sense of Taste. In: 2012 16th International Symposium on Wearable Computers. [Online]. June 2012, Newcastle, United Kingdom: IEEE, pp. 80–87. Available from: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/6246147/. [Accessed: 1 November 2020].