Endless food blogs supply us every day with a never-ending stream of recipe suggestions, restaurant reviews and culinary travel reports. To help the reader’s imagination, these reports are of course illustrated with eye-catching images. They look good. All too often, however, frustration grabs you as you’re marveling – after all, what looks so good must taste even better! Unfortunately, these coveted treats are damned to a flattened existence on the digital screen if you don’t take it upon yourself to make the recipe, visit the restaurant or set off to whatever country. Soon this may be remedied.
Not too long ago researchers at the Keio-NUS CUTE (Connective Ubiquitous Technology for Embodiments) Center in Singapore set out to make tastes digitally tangible and transferable. Under the leadership of Dr. Nimesha Ranasinghe they designed a device that “simulates” tastes on the human tongue, in other words: it communicates virtual tastes that express themselves on the tongue as real, perceptible sensory input. It all works non-invasively. A small silver electrode is held against the tip of the tongue. This stimulates the organ of taste with various electric voltages and temperatures that the brain automatically translates into various tastes. Depending on voltage and temperature, sour, sweet, salty and bitter sensations can be elicited on the tongue. For a specific taste, that is, virtual imitation, let’s say a tomato, various electric voltages have to be combined as the temperature of the electrode fluctuates in a certain rhythm. Here voltage and temperature are responsible for various regions of taste. Sour, salt and bitter flavors recede with voltage, while sweet, spicy and minty flavors depend more on temperature. Of course, here the subjective impression of the human tongue plays a role not to be underestimated. Technology for sending tastes to friends via the internet is already in the making. Instead of likes, we will soon be able to send New York cheesecakes with strawberry topping.
As a first field of application Dr. Ranasinghe could imagine a kind of reward system for gamers. When players pass a task they would be rewarded with a pleasant taste; upon failing they would be punished with an awful one. Certain parallels to the Pavlovian dog are undeniable.
“Project Nourished” is by far the most concerned with rewards. The goal of the project is nothing less than introducing a new kind of diet, that’s right, a virtual one. Yet that’s not the whole story. You really do eat, but molecularly. Combining virtual reality and molecular cuisine, the invention seeks to create an experience that appeals to all five senses. Dinner guests wear Occulus Rift glasses that allow them to dine in their surroundings of choice, including the middle of a traffic hub in Tokyo at rush hour. The dishes on offer are still limited yet will be expanded in the future and can be downloaded online. Here “dish” means a small cake made of hydrocolloid that imitates the taste, smell and texture of the food. Sensors and motion trackers compile the real object and make it visible as a corresponding digital object in the virtual realm. The hydrocolloids are extracted from algae and fruit, among other things, and are thus extremely low in calories. “Eat anything you want without regret,” as the website puts it.
Here we come a bit closer to the original motivation behind the project. It was inspired by the scene in the Peter Pan movie where you only have to imagine what you want to eat and it appears on the table before you. What’s funny in the movie has a more serious tenor for the developers. The technology is intended for people who are overweight, diabetic, have food allergies or certain dietary problems and are unable to eat what they want. By some accounts this could help fight cancer, although this has yet to be proven. In a few years when everyone has a 3D printer at home, it will be possible to print your meals straight from the World Wide Web onto your plate. After which you can put on your virtual reality glasses and treat yourself to apple pie in the middle of the desert.
All signs point to total virtual reality. What started as “Second Life” has since conquered our senses. How much longer until average wage earners can make a virtual jaunt to the grocery store? Well, a little while longer. Even so, new technologies such as this one confront us with questions regarding what real food really is, and perhaps more importantly, our role in it all. If our senses are so easily duped, is what we eat of any real importance? Going out to eat virtually would, in the same breath, mean allowing oneself to be deceived. Theoretically, we could soon kick back and let the digitally roasted chicken fly right into our mouths as we, in reality, munch on a colorful algae cake in. Pessimists might blame such thinking on Western decadence. To a certain extent that may be right. On the other side of the coin, virtual food can open new doors for creative culinary expression. Award-winning cuisine is increasingly bold and experimental: how about a five-course menu with virtual dessert? As yet unknown flavors could potentially be discovered.
However this development influences our future eating habits, when I can finally taste what I see online, it will be worth it.