Mmmh, this chip tastes delicious!

Licking a chip? Well, if it tastes good... Credit: National University of Singapore

We have been able to convert atoms into bits over the last fifty years, including air pressure waves (sound), photons (images) and molecules (chemical sensors). Work is progressing now to convert bits into atoms and also bits into electrical fields that can stimulate our senses to bring the bits to our brain perception. 

It is along this line that researchers are working to recreate sensations like pressure (haptic), odours, and taste. It is not easy and although some results have been achieved they have not been satisfactory. One of the reason is that the sensation we derive from a simple thing as eating a loaf of bread is actually a blending of several information flows arriving to our brain, like the fragrant smell of the just baked bread, its texture detected by our tongue and by our jaw muscles, its taste detected by gustative sensors in our tongue.

There are several studies going on as reported by New Scientist.

Among this the one carried out by researchers at the National University of Singapore that have created a chip whose surface can lead our tongue (once you have been convinced that licking a chip is great!) to feel a variety of tastes. They have started three years ago by creating a lollipop (an electrode) that can stimulate the taste buds on your tongue to feel salt, sour, sweet and bitter. 

This was a first step but it proved to be quite different from the real thing. Sweet, as an example, was not really ... sweet. Now they have found a way by including thermal stimulation to deliver a much better perception of sweetness. In addition our perception of food goes beyond its taste. It involves the perception of its texture and that involves signals generating by your muscles as you chew. To trigger these signals researchers are stimulating the jaw muscle with electrical signals.

Now, licking a chip may not be at the top of your priorities, but what if you were told by your doctor to cut on sugar, or on salt, because of diabetes or high blood pressure and somebody tells you that by using s special spoon you can feel the sweetness, or saltiness, you like without actually ingesting any sugar or salt?

This is the objective of the researchers, embedding the taste generators inside objects like spoons, forks, glasses that we are using everyday. A long shot to have these common tools augmented by what we may say is augmented reality at atoms' level but it has just become a technology problem we can work on.

This is also bringing augmented reality into another sense domain, expanding the one we have today that has been confined to visual sensation (mostly) and tactile sensation (in a few niches).

Author - Roberto Saracco

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