It's almost 2014 and virtual reality still hasn't progressed to a point where I can ride a white tiger through a lightning storm or dunk a basketball on Dikembe Mutumbo, but in the next few years I might be able to enjoy a salty 16 oz. porterhouse guilt-free.
Researchers led by Nimesha Ranasinghe at the National University of Singapore are working on a new-ish virtual simulator that uses a silver electrode hooked up to a computer to simulate taste. Think of it as smell-o-vision for your taste buds.
The technology behind the taste synthesizer isn't complicated. It works by reproducing four of the major taste components in varying degrees and ratios: Salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. (No umami, though. At least not yet.) Those tastes are tickled, according to New Scientist, by fooling the tongue's taste receptors with "a varying alternating current and slight changes in temperature controlled by semiconductor elements that heat and cool very rapidly."
If that doesn't sound very appetizing, that's because it isn't. The technology is still incredibly new, and you still have to stick out your tongue and let a clunky piece of metal zap it. At the moment, though, Ranasinghe and his team are working on compacting the technology down into a "digital lollipop" which will allow users to, say, taste test a box of expensive chocolates online before they hit the buy button.
But "flavor" is a tad more complex than any sensation an electrical signal can induce alone. Smells and textures play a just-as-essential role in the sensory experience of dining.
Which isn't to say it isn't impossible to re-create them artificially. Wired reported back in 2009 that a failed startup called DigiScents had actually built a working smell-o-matic machine, which drew from "a scent palette of 64 elements" to create a wide range of scents. It worked, but ultimately the company folded when the dot-com bubble burst.
While pairing the technology with something like the Oculus Rift to simulate, I don't know, the food fight scene from Hook does sound fun, the fantastical virtual taste simulator could prove valuable for a number of real-world industries, especially healthcare. "People with diabetes might be able to use the taste synthesizer to simulate sweet sensations," says Ranasinghe, "without harming their actual blood sugar levels."