Sight is on its way to being solved, as is sound. There’s promising progress being made when it comes to feeling and even some rather surprising experiments with smell. Virtual reality (VR) technology, then, is beginning to grasp the first 4 of the 5 major senses. But what about taste? It’s the missing part of the puzzle, even if it can be hard to picture the kind of virtual experience in which someone would utilise it. This is arguably far more complex than tricking any of our other senses, requiring a deep understanding of the human systems that allow us to tell the difference between foods rather than simply tricking us into seeing or hearing something.
Perfect virtual taste feels like it should be done more for completionist’s sake rather than anything else, then, but promising work is going into what’s known as gustatory technology.
Much of this work is being carried out by engineers at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Back in 2012 a research team lead by Nimesha Ranasinghe developed a ‘digital lollipop’ that was capable of simulating sweet, sour, salty and bitter tastes. Ranasinghe’s team created a system in which the user’s taste buds were stimulated by an electrical current to trick the brain into thinking it was tasting certain flavours. The concept even slightly altered temperature to remain consistent with certain types of foods. This formed the foundation of the virtual taste technology seen today.
More exciting breakthroughs have been made as recently as this year, as Ranasignhe’s team and the NUS have revealed Taste+ (seen above). This device, which resembles a pint glass, again uses electrical stimulation to replicate certain tastes, though now allows the user to twist a dial at the bottom for the flavour they’re aiming for, and how strong they wish it to be. The research group has cited numerous uses for this technology, such as being able to taste someone’s cooking on a TV show, or restoring cherished sensations for those that have lost this sense. There has of course also been mention of its use with VR head-mounted displays (HMDs) such as the Oculus Rift.
In fact, Taste+ is expected to see a commercial release in the not so distant future. Could this be the VR peripheral we use when sitting in virtual restaurants? Will looking at a CG steak, no matter photorealistic it may be, and tasting it really be able to trick users in the future? If so, what concerns are there about bringing the taste experience to VR but obviously without any of the nutrition that is provided by the food we eat?
VR taste could add a crucial element to the inevitable social applications for the technology, the potential of which likely formed a large part of why Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion USD back in 2014. One day VR fans will be able to meet up online, shake hands, hug, make eye contact and more, so why not add taste into the equation? Imagine two friends being able to sit by the sea with ice creams in hand, swapping stories as they feasted, or grabbing a pack of virtual doughnuts to chomp down after riding a VR rollercoaster together. This could be a welcome – if not completely essential – addition to the VR experience.
There are possible videogame applications too. The cooking simulator genre has often been about speed and precision, with no way for players to sample their own work in real life. VR could change all that, which must be especially exciting for developers such as Starship working on titles such as CyberCook. Imagine what kind of scene setting developers could create by making you eat strange sci-fi meals, or casually sitting at a bar as you scanned an environment for a target. Again, it’s not essential, but perfecting VR taste would go that much further in creating entirely immersive experiences.
We want VR to become the whole package and, eventually, that’s going to include taste too. Fortunately, work is well underway in this complex and fascinating area, and it may not be too much longer until VR becomes an all-sense experience.