[Nimesha Ranasinghe is bringing a new dimension to virtual
reality, embedding electric taste simulation technology into utensils
to fool the tongue into experiencing tastes that aren’t there.]
USING ELECTRIC CURRENTS TO FOOL OURSELVES INTO TASTING SOMETHING
August 15, 2018
_ Nimesha Ranasinghe is bringing a new dimension to virtual reality,
embedding electric taste simulation technology into utensils to fool
the tongue into experiencing tastes that aren’t there. _
These electrode-embedded chopsticks can simulate saltiness. , Nimesha
It’s hard not to think of Nimesha Ranasinghe as a digital age Willy
Wonka. But his lab, at the University of Maine, isn’t full of
chocolate, and it doesn’t smell like cotton candy. Instead, the
materials of the engineer’s work are electrodes and wires, LEDs and
Ranasinghe is one of the world’s leading researchers on electric
taste simulation—using electronic tools to fool the tongue into
experiencing tastes that aren’t there. Use his electrode-embedded
to eat creamy, salty mashed potatoes. Except they’re not salted at
all—the taste of saltiness comes entirely from the current in the
chopsticks. Sip tart yellow lemonade from a tumbler. It’s actually
not lemonade at all, but plain water colored yellow with an LED, the
sourness a result of an electric current running through the cup. Lick
a “Virtual Lollipop [https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2996462],”
and discover what taste your particular biochemical makeup senses—it
might be sour, sweet, salty or even bitter. In any case, there’s no
actual food involved, only silver electrodes.
“I like food,” Ranasinghe says. “But the controllability of
taste is what I’m really interested and excited about.”
Ranasinghe’s research involves controlling taste sensations through
electricity, color, heat and scent. He envisions a future where
simulated tastes could be part of virtual or augmented reality
experiences, another step towards comprehensive faux reality.
Originally from Sri Lanka, Ranasinghe has a background in both
electrical engineering and computer science. When he arrived at the
National University of Singapore to do his PhD, he was interested in
figuring out a way to bring senses beyond sight and sound into virtual
reality. When he realized there was very little research into
electrically simulating tastes, his course of study was set.
“Initially actually I didn’t have any idea how to do this,” he
says. “Unless you have an array of chemicals and put them in the
user’s mouth. But that didn’t sound digital. I was determined to
find something totally electrical or totally digital.”
Ranasinghe found some papers from the 1970s describing using silver
wires to explore the organization of the taste system. Study
participants had reported having sour or salty taste sensations when
the wires were placed on their tongues. This made sense, Ranasinghe
knew, as sour and salty sensations are detected through ion channels.
The other primary tastes—sweet, bitter and umami—are harder to
simulate. It’s possible, Ranasinghe discovered, to create a minor
sense of sweetness through thermal stimulating—exposing the tongue
to alternating hot and cold temperatures. Heating and cooling can also
simulate perceptions of spiciness or cold, like the feeling of sucking
“The challenge with thermal stimulation is we need to come up with
these heating and cooling mechanisms, and you need to use these bulky
heat things [to heat the liquid],” he says. “It’s not easy.”
Another challenge involved umami—the taste of savoriness found
abundantly in foods like parmesan cheese, tomatoes, seaweed and soy
sauce. Ranasinghe found that, while most people could easily describe
when something was “salty” or “sweet,” they had little
vocabulary for describing umami. Fearing this would make data
collection extremely difficult, he decided to focus on other tastes.
Eventually, Ranasinghe had enough information to try bringing taste
simulation technology out of the lab. To do this, he decided to embed
the technology into ordinary utensils—chopsticks, bowls, cocktail
“When I used two silver electrodes, people hesitated to put them
inside their mouths,” he says.
He experimented with simulated saltiness by having users eat mashed
potatoes with electrode-embedded chopsticks. While chopsticks are
generally not the utensil of choice for mashed potato eating, he found
that users tended to lick the sticky potatoes off the chopsticks,
ensuring their tongues came in contact with the electrodes. An
electrode-embedded soup bowl was used to enhance the sourness of
diluted miso soup, provided the testers drank the soup Japanese-style,
mouth to rim.
From here Ranasinghe and his team—first at the Keio-National
University of Singapore’s Connective Ubiquitous Technology for
Embodiments (CUTE) Centre [http://cutecenter.nus.edu.sg/], and now at
the University of Maine’s Multisensory Interactive Media (MIM) Lab
[http://www.mimlab.info/] – branched out into exploring how
combining other stimuli could change taste and flavor experiences.
They created a “Vocktail
for “virtual cocktail”)—a martini glass with electrodes, scent
cartridges and an LED. The drinker can control the sourness or
saltiness of the drink in the glass with the electrodes, can add
different scents like chocolate, mint, strawberry or banana, and can
change the color with the LED. Users could create a sour,
green-colored mint mojito or a salty-sour red-colored strawberry
margarita. All out of plain water.
There are several potential real-world applications for the
technology, Ranasinghe says. First, there’s the health angle: the
technologies could be used to help people decrease salt or sugar in
their diets by fooling the taste buds. It could also help those with
diminished capacity for taste—chemotherapy patients, for example, or
the elderly—to enjoy food again. Second, flavor houses—companies
that develop and produce flavorings for the food and beverage
industry—could use a taste simulator to get instant tester feedback
on flavor profiles (drink too sour? How about now?). Third has to do
with virtual or augmented reality: how cool would it be to be able to
actually “taste” a slice of cake as you’re wandering a virtual
recreation of a 19th century Viennese pastry shop? Or sip a glowing
cup of alien grog as you explore a far-off planet?
Matthias Harders, co-author of the book Virtual Reality in Medicine,
speculates that taste technology incorporated into VR might one day be
used to help treat eating disorders.
“But the technology is still too rudimentary to see a clear benefit
in medicine,” he says.
Harders thinks we’ll see smell technology incorporated into virtual
reality much sooner than taste technology. Some ultra-high-tech movie
theaters, he points out, are already using smell technology to enhance
viewers’ experiences (theaters have in fact been using smell for
nearly 100 years, from piping in perfume during a romantic play to the
infamous Smell-o-Vision of the 1960s).
Adrian David Cheok, a professor of computing at the City University of
London who works on taste simulation, agrees.
“We actually smell our food,” he says. “In the long run it’s
going to be more important to simulate smell.”
Cheok, who served as Ranasinghe’s PhD advisor, imagines work like
his and Ranasinghe’s could connect people in unexpected ways. People
living far from family sometimes set up Skype while they eat, he says,
to “share” dinner with loved ones. But what if they could actually
share the smell and taste as well? Taste and smell technology could
also be a learning aid in schools or museums, he says.
“Imagine you could also taste and smell the foods that people ate in
ancient Rome?” he says.
Though Cheok says current work on taste simulation is rather limited,
there are a few researchers besides himself and Ranasinghe. Japanese
researchers developed a Food Simulator that fits in the mouth,
allowing the user the sensation of chewing while an in-ear speaker
simultaneously delivers appropriate noises (crunching if you’re
meant to be chewing a cracker, for example). At the same time, the
mouthpiece squirts in tiny jets of chemicals to represented the five
basic tastes. Another device, 2005’s TasteScreen, uses chemical
flavoring cartridges to deliver flavors to a computer screen. Created
by a then-Stanford grad student, it allows users to literally lick the
screen to taste what they’re seeing.
It will take far more than stimulating the taste buds (or squirting
chemicals on a computer screen) to recreate the taste of real food
from scratch. While sour, sweet, salty, bitter and umami are tastes
detected by the tongue, the experience of eating involves flavor and
mouthfeel as well. Flavor—think roasted, fruity or floral—involves
the sense of smell, and texture (creamy, crunchy, chewy) is about our
sense of touch.
Ranasinghe’s future work involves all of this. He’s interested in
using olfactory and haptic technology to incorporate smell and touch
in VR taste experiences. Imagine sipping “coffee” in a virtual
office while coffee scent is piped in and tactile sensors give you the
feeling of shaking real sugar into your mug, which is blowing warm air
into your nostrils to feel like steam.
Sound like magic?
As Willy Wonka said: “Invention, my dear friends, is 93 percent
perspiration, 6 percent electricity, 4 percent evaporation, and 2
percent butterscotch ripple.”
In Ranasinghe’s case, it’s heavier on the electricity, but no less
Emily Matchar is a writer based in Hong Kong and Chapel Hill, North
Carolina. Her work has appeared in _The New York Times_, _The
Atlantic_, _The New Republic_, _The Washington Post_ and other
publications. She is the author of _Homeward Bound: Why Women Are
Embracing the New Domesticity_
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