Tasting Virtual Reality
Virtual Reality is a great tool for experimenting with our perception and ability to understand the vast amount of information coming in from our senses. The technology and its conceptual underpinnings cover an enormous research space in all areas of human perception, sense reconstruction and philosophy. Only three of the human senses, the visual, auditory, and the touch have been so far to some extent successfully recreated. The other senses like the olfactory (smell), the vestibular (the feeling of our joints and muscles), and the one we will discuss here, that of taste, are still yet to be fully explored and we probably will not have any viable solutions in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, we are now beginning to have some clues about how we might get to the point of virtually enjoying our dinner.
Will we ever be able to taste virtual objects?
Nimesha Ranasinghe, a researcher at the National University of Singapore has developed a way to simulate flavours by using electrical and thermal stimulation (picture at the top and below). This devices could let “people with diabetes might be able to use the taste synthesizer to simulate sweet sensations without harming their actual blood sugar levels,” he says. “Cancer patients could use it to improve or regenerate a diminished sense of taste during chemotherapy.”
There is more to simulating taste than tricking the taste buds. Perceiving flavour is a complex process, constituted of not only the felling we get from the gustatory receptors on our tongue, but from a combination of smell, visual and touch stimuli . What makes makes digitizing taste so complex, is precisely because it involves such multidisciplinary research.
The video above is from a project called 'Project Nourished' (http://www.projectnourished.com/) - "Project Nourished allows you to experience eating and drinking in a whole new way by hacking vision, gustation, olfaction, audition and touch—with or without caloric intake." Their project is more of a concept for the idea, and their tech isn't as magical as they make it sound, but this is a really interesting space to work in.
There are many ways to experiment and manipulate taste. High pitch sounds, make food taste sweeter while low pitch sounds makes food taste bitter , adding red food coloring into white wine makes it taste like red wine , playing sea sounds makes seafood taste fresher .
It is conceivable that In the future we will be able to have full dining experiences, with all the flovours, smells and textures without the cost and calories of of real food.
Taste, like any other human sense, is in part a byproduct of our imagination. I believe that to some extent it is possible to make people 'taste' food, without them actually eating anything. Think how after spending a long time in total darkness, you will start seeing or hearing things - this is your brain making up for the lack of sensory information. With the right combination of images, smell and sound, you can make people feel like they eaten and experienced virtual flavors.
The main problem with this idea is that biting into virtual food doesn't give you the tactile sensation and the texture of chewing. But if people are deprived of other sensory information as well, then the lack of tactile sensation would make sense. If for example they were in a virtual space where everything was made of 'ether', and nothing would be solid but rather soft and immaterial, then the food would make perfect sense to also not feel solid. Add the right smells and the virtual representation at the right time, and you might just 'taste the virtual'.