A young girl wears a VR headset in a kitchen and interacts with digital menus

4 crazy tech developments bringing virtual reality to food and drink

  • Gum with the taste and texture of a full-course meal might soon be a reality
  • In the near future, we’ll be able to upload the taste of a drink, not just a photo
  • Now there’s virtual sweetness and saltiness for people with dietary restrictions
  • Imagine remotely sampling the culinary treats at street-food stalls in Singapore

Remember Violet, the Golden Ticket winner from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? The gum she popped in her mouth replicated the flavours of a delicious meal for her taste buds. While this was very much a science fiction scenario when the story was written (and even when the new movie came out), scientists are now actually managing to digitally recreate tastes and textures.

You might wonder why we would want to create virtual versions of the sensory side of gastronomy. Well, virtual food or the virtual experience of eating could be the answer for people with calorie or salt-restricted diet challenges or those who have difficulties eating or drinking as a result of a medical condition. Others might want to create an out-of-this-world dining experience for a first date or try something that doesn’t or can never exist, like crispy soup. The technologies we’re about to discuss in this article make everything that’s not possible – culinarily speaking – possible. Prepare to have your mind, and your taste buds, blown.

1. When life hands you digital lemons, why not create virtual lemonade?

Posting images of nice, refreshing and colourful drinks on Instagram and Facebook is nice, but what if you could even upload the taste of it? That’s exactly what Nimesha Ranasinghe from the National University of Singapore wanted to be able to do, and in collaboration with his team, he actually managed to accomplish it. To allow people to share sensory experiences via the Internet, he created a system of sensors and electrodes that can transmit the sourness and basic colour of a glass of lemonade to a special ‘glass’ of water, making the water look and taste like lemonade.

How did they do it? They used a PH sensor and an RGB colour sensor to capture the acidity and colour of freshly made lemonade. They sent this data to a specially created tumbler filled with water with an electrode around the rim. By stimulating the drinker’s taste buds with a pulse of electricity, the electrode recreated the sour flavour of the lemonade, while LED lights in the tumbler replicated the yellow-green colour. Their work was presented at the Conference on Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interaction in Yokohama, Japan last month. With their current system, the team is not yet capable of transmitting a complete flavour profile, but they are working on a new virtual cocktail, complete with flavour, taste and smell. Apart from making it possible to share a drink via social media, the team wants to enable people to enjoy sweet beverages without damaging their teeth or consuming too many calories.

A glass with a cold drink and a straw on a wooden table with a laptop next to it
To allow people to share sensory experiences via the Internet, he created a system of sensors and electrodes that can transmit the sourness and basic colour of a glass of lemonade to a special ‘glass’ of water, making the water look and taste like lemonade.

2. Replicating the taste of salt by electro-’shocking’ your tongue with a fork

Seasoning your food can make it more flavourful, but too much salt in your diet can actually be bad for your health, such as is the case for patients suffering from hypertension. A research team, led by Hiromi Nakamura of the Rekimoto Lab at the University of Tokyo, have now developed a fork that adds the salty flavour without actually adding the salty flavour. The prototype fork was developed for the ‘No Salt Restaurant,’ a project aimed at offering full-course but salt-free meals. The battery-powered utensil ‘shocks’ your taste buds into thinking they taste salt. The electric fork not only enables you to taste salt, but also sourness and a variety of textures. The user scoops some food onto the magic fork and puts it in his mouth. He then pushes a button on the handle, releasing a soft electrical current into his tongue, creating the impression of a salty flavour. Nakamura’s magic fork is aimed at those with salt-restricted diets who still want to enjoy the taste of salty food. The device comes with three different levels of saltiness and its battery lasts approximately six hours. The researchers have stressed that the prototype is not yet waterproof and that the fork can create an unpleasant metallic taste if pushed too far into in the mouth.

By the way, if you think this is new technology, think again. Researchers have actually been carrying out these and similar experiments since the seventies. For example, a 1976 issue of the European Journal of Physiology features a study in which a person’s tongue was electrically stimulated in various ways to get an understanding of how the human taste buds work and how the flavour of food could be electrically enhanced.

3. The virtual sweet tooth – augmenting real-world flavours with heat

Nimesha Ranasinghe at the National University of Singapore, the man behind the virtual lemonade and other taste recreation experiments, is also collaborating with his colleague, Ellen Yi-Luen Do, on projects involving thermal stimulation in which the sensation of sweetness is mimicked. Simulating the sensation of sweetness, for instance, by embedding a system of thermoelectric elements into someone’s glass or mug, enables us to enhance real-world flavours without actually having to consume products with unhealthily high sugar content. The user places his tongue on the square of thermoelectric elements, which then rapidly cools or heats the sensitive neurons on the tongue, tricking them into experiencing various tastes. During initial trials, some participants tasted varying levels of sweetness while exposed to different temperatures. Some reported a minty taste when the device was around 18 °C and a spicy taste when the device was around 35 °C.

Ranasinghe and Do are continuing to refine the sweet tastes to also include these minty and spicy alternatives. One day, they envision these electrodes embedded into a glass or mug, giving plain water a sweet taste. It is important to Ranasinghe to be able to introduce the sweet sensation as a controllable, digital media. Excessive sugar consumption can have detrimental effects, and mimicking the taste of sweetness this way could prevent serious diseases and positively impact people’s health.

4. You can now chew on food, even if there’s nothing in your mouth

When it comes to enjoying food, texture is every bit as important as taste. Another team from the University of Tokyo, Arinobu Niijima and Takefumi Ogawa, recently developed the Electric Food Texture System, a device that simulates the experience of chewing foods with different types of textures. The system places electrodes on the masseter muscle of the jaw, and while biting down, it creates haptic feedback sensations of hardness or chewiness, even if there’s nothing in your mouth. To create an elastic-type texture such as that of chewy candy, the masseter muscle is stimulated with a long electric pulse, while to create the impression of hard food, the muscle is stimulated at a higher frequency. Participants of recent trials with the Electric Food Texture System said that the soft, real-world biscuits they ate while wearing the system got a harder and chewier texture. The idea is to develop the concept further and create more complex textures by targeting additional jaw muscles and adding sensory inputs such as chewing sounds and smell. The project is still in the early stages of development, but the aim is to assist people with health problems such as those with restricted diets, allergies or weak jaws. People who have to eat soft foods every day because of problems with swallowing will soon be able to enjoy chewy textures. The potential applications of this system are virtually limitless.

Experiencing culinary treats in faraway places – from the comfort of your home

These latest technologies enabling us to digitally create the physical sensation of eating food are nothing short of incredible. They range from electrical currents that create different taste sensations and textures to manipulating temperature on the tip of your tongue to produce varying levels of sweetness. Their potential applications range from managing obesity to food allergies and diabetes, and will even enable those who have suffered a stroke to chew and experience the pleasure of eating again. The tech can even help children get used to eating healthily by providing fun ways to eat the good foods they normally don’t enjoy. And lastly, astronauts who are generally severely restricted when it comes to their diets will soon be able to experience a variety of foods, making their celestial journeys that much more enjoyable.

Although virtual eating may still be some time away, it won’t be very much longer before these research efforts, experiments and prototypes are also commercialised for various other applications, such as culinary tourism, for instance. Imagine going on a virtual wine tasting trip to French wineries or remotely sampling the culinary treats at the street-food stalls in Singapore – from the comfort of your home. I hear you think: “They would also have to develop digital scent technology to make that work,” but you can rest assured, that’s already on the menu as well.

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