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Mmm yummy! Christopher Little's tastebuds tingle with new virtual reality technology

13th March 2017

Food, glorious food. Whether it be a juicy burger, a tasty curry or simply avocado on toast. We all have our favourite meals. But imagine if you could enjoy them whenever you wanted? Without even having to cook or worry about over indulging? Well that hallowed day may well be on the horizon, thanks to some nifty experiments with “virtual food”.

Scientists have used electronics to not only mimic the flavours of food, but also the feel of it in your mouth. The technology could be used to incorporate a new sensory dimension to virtual reality, allowing users to sample food from all over the world. Gamers could look forward to finally finding out what Skyrim’s Black-Briar mead tastes like and whether Zelda’s Link’s cooking is really all that. There is also the potential for the tech to enhance the experience of dining in the real world, which could have healthcare applications by helping those with restricted diets.

"Scientists have used electronics to not only mimic the flavours of food, but also the feel of it in your mouth. The technology could be used to incorporate a new sensory dimension to virtual reality"

It is generally regarded that the human tongue has five major taste components; sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness and umami (which means ‘delicious’ in Japanese but is often translated to ‘savoury’ in English). Nimesha Ranasinghe at the National University of Singapore has been investigating various ways of emulating these different tastes. His “digital lollipop” sends signals through an electrode touching the tip of the tongue to fool the taste receptors. By using a noninvasive alternating electrical current and thermal stimulation Ranasinghe found that, apart from umami, the device was able to reproduce all of the primary taste sensations.

During his experiments, he also discovered that electrical stimulation was not the most effective means of mimicking the sensation of sweetness. As digitising this taste has the potential to improve health by cutting a person’s sugar intake, Ranasinghe and his colleague Ellen Yi-Leun Do have been carrying out further experiments in to thermal stimulation. This time the taste receptors are fooled by a square of thermoelectric elements that are rapidly heated or cooled, which deceives the thermally sensitive neurones that contribute to the sensation of taste.

Presenting their new project at the 2016 ACM User Interface Software and Technology Symposium (UIST) in Tokyo, it was revealed an initial trial worked for about half the participants. Some even reported the sensation of spiciness when the device was warmer and a minty taste when it was cooler. Ranasinghe and Do hope that it could one day be incorporated in to a glass or mug to make low-sugar drinks taste sweeter.

While manipulating taste receptors may go a long way to recreating one of the fundamental joys of eating, it cannot simulate the texture of food. The sensation of biting down and chewing, which is just as important to the overall experience. However, a team from the University of Tokyo has recently presented a device that can do just that. Using electrodes not on the tongue, but on the masseter muscle (a muscle the jaw uses for chewing) they have been able to simulate the sensation of chewiness or hardness.

Designed by Arinobu Niijima and Tekefumi Ogawa, their Electric Food Texture System uses haptic feedback to make users feel like they are chewing on food. They found that higher frequencies simulate harder textures and a longer electric pulse simulates an elastic texture. The device can also modify the texture of food in the mouth and could help those who can not eat satisfactorily due to weak jaws, allergies and dietary restrictions.

Though both projects are still in their experimental stages, they could eventually be incorporated into a virtual reality experience. So one day, you may be able to eat the food on the cookery programme you are watching.

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