In another step towards the multi-sensory digital era, the re-creation of real taste in virtual form offers a range of opportunities in both the health and education fields. Brands and retail marketers might also wish to take advantage of it.

It is not often that you call on all five of your senses when you are sitting at your computer or watching TV. Sight and hearing, yes, perhaps even touch as well, but smell and taste are generally absent from the experience. Although there have been diet-oriented experiments such as the one at Tokyo University with glasses designed to limit appetite, no-one has so far managed to reconstitute and incorporate tastes into our digital experience. However, an invention with this precise aim is now in the pipeline. The ‘Digital Lollipop’ was one of the ten innovations to receive a prize at the Netexplo Forum which took place in Paris on 26-28 March. Once the design has been perfected, the digital lolly will be able to simulate and stimulate a variety of tastes. The project, led by researcher Nimesha Ranasinghe at the National University of Singapore (NUS), is still at the prototype stage and seeking funding.

Simulating food tastes in digital form

You put the ‘lollipop’ on the edge of your tongue and it transmits to your taste buds a virtual taste via a weak electric current and a minute variation in temperature. At the moment only the four basic tastes – salt, sweet, bitter and sour – can be simulated and “the next step is about finding new ways of communicating more subtle tastes,” explains Nimesha Ranasinghe. In fact he does not rule out in the longer term the experience of being able to taste and interact with a dish you can see on a TV cookery programme. Of the potential range of applications for such an invention, the health field is most obvious. The project researchers envisage the possibility of using their simulator as a substitute foodstuff, for overweight people for example, to reduce their desire for sugar. Along the lines of the electronic cigarette for smokers – simulating the act of smoking without the disadvantages of inhaling tar – the ‘digital lollipop’ would allow you to ‘taste’ sugar virtually without actually absorbing any calories. So it could be “really useful as an appetite suppressant,” agrees Benoit Klajn, founder of Highlab Marketing and Technologies, also pointing out that in addition “one could imagine using it to help rehabilitate people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease by stimulating their taste memory.”

Substitute…or initiation aid

The taste simulator might also be used in the education field, in this case more as a stimulus than a substitute – introducing youngsters to a range of tastes or enabling people to discover new tastes and new products. The researchers do not at the moment envisage any retail marketing applications, but one could well imagine that brands might see real value in it. Brand marketers are well aware that when an experience engages the consumer’s senses it often stimulates purchasing behaviour. This taste sensory simulation tool therefore looks like a good way for companies to let their customers discover the taste of new products virtually. Benoit Klajn argues nevertheless that “this application of the product isn’t so obvious. The technology is still too remote for brands and they aren’t ready for it yet. And will consumers really want to use the product?” he wonders. Nevertheless we should not forget that for instance the Kinect technology, which was initially created for the consumer market – specifically video games – is now being harnessed for medical purposes. “The reverse is also feasible,” agrees Benoit Klajn.