I grew up reading and re-reading Roald Dahl’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, and there were two scenes that always blew my mind.
In the first, Willy Wonka shows the children a stick of gum — “the most amazing and fabulous and sensational gum in the world!” — that conveys the flavors of a meal, one course after the other: tomato soup, roast beef, blueberry pie. Of course, it hasn’t been fully developed yet, and when one of the children, Violet, grabs the gum and starts chewing, she expands into a giant blueberry (“Violet, you’re turning violet!”).
In the other, he shows off a teleporter can send a miniature bar of chocolate to a real TV in someone’s living room. Someone watching TV can simply snatch it from the screen. “If these people can break up a photograph into millions of pieces and send the pieces whizzing through the air and then put them together again at the other end, why can’t I do the same thing with a bar of chocolate?” he challenges.
Roald Dahl’s creations were limited only by the imagination. But real-life innovations are too. And technology from the National University of Singapore aims to kind of do a mix of Wonka’s two taste-tests — without, we hope, the unfortunate side effect of turning into a blueberry.
It’s called a “digital lollipop,” and it sends electrical and thermal stimulation to different parts of the tongue to simulate flavors.
In the prototypes developed so far by Nimesha Ranasinghe and his team, users put silver electrodes on the tip of their tongue, connected manually or with Bluetooth to a control computer. The electrodes then transmit non-harmful electrical currents and slight changes in temperature. The varying currency, frequency and temperature stimulate the tongue’s taste receptors, producing the illusion of taste.
So far, they’ve been able to successfully simulate sour, salty, minty (especially as the electrodes cool down) and spicy (especially as the electrodes heat up) sensations. They’ve been mildly successful with bitter and sweet sensations, according to a paper published in October.
This, of course, is still far from creating the illusion of tomato soup or anything remotely complex. It’s nowhere near the complexity even of chemically synthesized flavors.
But if it worked, it could be used as part of an ultra-sensory media experience where flavors are transmitted remotely to an electronic device in the user’s mouth. Imagine tasting food on TV cooking shows, getting rewarded with a treat for succeeding in a video game or sharing a meal with a friend on social media.
“In the future, we believe that this technology will be further enhanced to develop new applications in remote multi-sensory interactions,” Ranasinghe and his team wrote in a 2012 research paper. “For example, the possibility of tasting food remotely without physically consuming it.”
Science and technology magazine New Scientist writes that it could also be used to help people stop consuming sugary drinks and give diabetics a risk-free sugar hit.
It’s interesting to note that the perception of taste comes from more than just taste bud receptors. The researchers say it’s also shown to be influenced by texture, color and smell. And we’ve already written about researchers in Japantrying to simulate scents from an iPhone, so maybe they can collaborate. We’ll take some credit if they do.