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06/01/2014 22:30 | By Mark Hattersley, contributor, MSN Innovation

The incredible new way to taste your food online

Digital taste synthesizers could enable food to be tasted over the internet if boffins get their way


Getty Images (© Getty Images)


Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) have built a device capable of digitally recreating the sensation of taste, paving the way for a future in which we can taste things online as well as look at them.

The device, dubbed the Digital Taste Synthesizer, was revealed by the NUS on 2 January 2014 following successful trials. A silver electrode was placed onto the tongue of test subjects and electrical and thermal stimulation was used to re-create several different tastes.

Dr Nimesha Ranasinghe shows off the Digital Taste Synthesizer alongside research collegues (© National University of Singapore - Dr Nimesha Ranasinghe)

Dr Nimesha Ranasinghe shows off the Digital Taste Synthesizer alongside research collegues

Mind-blowing concept

The work is the brainchild of Dr Nimesha Ranasinghe who wants to introduce virtual taste interactions in computers and mobile devices. The test subjects have reported sour, salty, and bitter sensations from electrical stimulation and minty, spicy and sweet sensations resulting from the thermal stimulation. Between the two different types of silver electrode devices it is possible to create a range of different tastes. Researchers have noted that the sour, salty and bitter sensations are currently more potent and work is being undertaken to improve the minty, spicy and sweet tastes. It’s worth noting that the taste experiences was dependent on the person being tested. The researchers qualified that the surveys were dependent on the responses of the subjects, which varied for different individuals. It is expected that further development will enable Ranasinghe and his team to finesse the sensations.

The Digital Taste Synthesizer: the equipment is still experimental at the moment, although commercial applications are expected to follow (© National University of Singapore - Dr Nimesha Ranasinghe)

The Digital Taste Synthesizer: the equipment is still experimental at the moment, although commercial applications are expected to follow

So… who wants to taste their mobile phone?

Assuming that it’ll soon be possible to recreate our sense of taste in a digitized format (as we currently do for video and audio), the obvious first question is: what on earth would we use it for? People are familiar with computer devices that work alongside our sense of touch, sight, and hearing but computers offering a sense of smell or taste are somewhat further away from the everyday world.

Indeed it’s hard to envision a world in which such a technical feature could have a viable purpose, rather than a merely comical one.

Adrian David Cheok, chair Professor of Pervasive Computing at City University London is an expert on Multisensory Human Communication. He is a keen believer in expanding computer devices so they provide a sense of smell and taste. “I think we should become like the samurai who perceived the world with all their five senses” says Cheok. “Knowledge is gained through experience and we limit our experience if we mainly communicate with audio vision and glass that we see in today’s information technology.”

The Digital Taste Synthesizer recreates the taste of virtual food and drinks using silver electrodes that are placed on the tongue (© National University of Singapore - Dr Nimesha Ranasinghe)

The Digital Taste Synthesizer recreates the taste of virtual food and drinks using silver electrodes that are placed on the tongue

A sensory experience

Cheok believes that the way we learn in the future will be a far more sensory experience than merely reading text, listening to audio and watching video. “Non-verbal communication is very important.” says Cheok, “So I believe that in the future we will move from the age of information, where we are now, to the age of experience”.

Before we get to that world though, we need to find a current use for Dr Nimesha Ranasinghe’s Digital Taste Synthesizer. There are plenty of ideas for implementing taste in the world: it could be a reward system in a gaming environment: sweet or minty for success, a bitter taste for failure; It could be useful for diabetics, who would use the device to taste sweetness without affecting their blood levels; it has also been theorized that cancer patients with a dulled sense of taste may be able to improve their sense of taste with the device.

To this end Ranasinghe is also working on a device called the Digital Lollipop, which is a more consumer-friendly version of his laboratory equipment. According to Ranasinghe’s notes, the system will be capable of manipulating the properties of electric currents (magnitude, frequency, and polarity: inverse current) to formulate different stimuli.

Participants taking part in taste trials of the Digital Taste Synthesizer (© National University of Singapore - Dr Nimesha Ranasinghe)

Participants taking part in taste trials of the Digital Taste Synthesizer

Taste over the internet

Ranasinghe is also developing a Taste Over IP (Taste/IP) markup language. This will be a framework for integrating the sensation of taste with websites. It comes with its own markup language called TasteXML (TXML) which developers will be able to integrate into their websites. So they can program a website to transmit a sense of taste to the recipients Digital Lollipop.

“Unlike audio and vision they are very difficult to digitize” says Cheok “but I believe smell and taste is very important to communicate through the internet. And the reason is because smell and taste are directly connected to the emotion and memory system of your brain … it is scientifically true that you can have a subconscious effect on emotion and memory through taste and smell.”

These electrical plates provoke the sensation of taste when they connect with the tongue (© National University of Singapore - Dr Nimesha Ranasinghe)

These electrical plates provoke the sensation of taste when they connect with the tongue

An eating revolution

In some respects the situation is very similar to music prior to the development of the CD (and later digital audio files like MP3). Taste is currently a chemical based analogue sensation, which is difficult to transmit in a digital arena like the internet. But that doesn’t mean that the same sensation cannot be analyzed, stored, transmitted and re-created digitally with the right hardware.

This isn’t the first time that somebody has tried to create more immersive communication device. In the 1950’s Morton Heilig, an early pioneer in virtual reality, outlined a vision of the multi-sensory theatre that he dubbed the Experience Theatre. He went on to build a prototype machine called the Sensorama that still functions today.

The Sensorama was able to display stereoscopic 3D images in a wide-angle view, provide body tilting, supply stereo sound, and also had tracks for wind and aromas to be triggered during the film

The Digital Taste Synthesizer is capable of creating a range of different tastes from bitter and salty to sweet and minty (© National University of Singapore - Dr Nimesha Ranasinghe)

The Digital Taste Synthesizer is capable of creating a range of different tastes from bitter and salty to sweet and minty

A new way forward?

The American critic and writer Howard Rheingold tested out Heilig’s Sensorama in 1992 and seemed impressed. Rheingold took a virtual bike round through Brooklyn in the 1950s. The Sensorama was able to display stereoscopic 3D images in a wide-angle view, provide body tilting, supply stereo sound, and recreated wind and aromas. “I put my hands on the handlebars and rested my face against a viewer that looked like a pair of binoculars with a padded faceplate” says Rheingold in his 1992 book Virtual Reality, “then I found myself on a motorcycle ride through the streets of Brooklyn, as Brooklyn has not appeared for thirty years”.

It may be that Heilig was simply too early with his analogue Senorama, and that the digital version may be the one that enables us all to experience places around the world as they look, sound, feel, smell, and even taste.

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