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A Bland World

Walking through the orchard on a warm summer day, the smells of nature in your nostrils, the soft padding of grass underfoot, you reach up a hand, and grab a juicy red apple from a tree, plucking it delicately. You bring it to your nose and smell the fragrance, then you bite into it. It is like chewing rubber. Completely tasteless. No juice, no sweet flesh, you cannot even detect it in your mouth. Spitting it out, you reach for a luscious juicy pear, and squeeze it with your thumb so the juice flows. Biting into it, it is like dry cardboard, or rubber, the same as the apple. You spit that out too, and reach for a pail of water to wash your mouth out. The water enters your mouth and immediately you would rather it hadn't. Your eyes tell you it is there, but your mouth tells you, you are drinking an utterly tasteless, temperature less something.

You smile as you see your partner in the distance, heading your way. As they approach, you reach out to hug them, Drawing them into your embrace. Your lips touch, and you kiss…and it is exactly the same as the apple. bland, tasteless, dry, there is simply nothing there.

Taste. It is actually more important than you might think. Whilst not a sense that actively explores the outside world, like sight, smell, touch and hearing, taste is still important. It allows you to truly savour the flavour of something, from an apple to your lover. Taste takes an experience and heightens it, feeding straight to the pleasure centre - or causing you to immediately remove unpleasant objects from your mouth.

If you are to have a great meal, or an intimate experience, anything, which involves the mouth, or the tongue, you need taste, or it will hurt in its lack lustreless.

Some attempts at recreating taste in VR have already been attempted, and are perfectly possible, although limited in application.

Implementing Taste

In 2003, Hiroo Iwata of the University of Tsukuba in Japan, created the first 'food simulator'. This made using a thin-film force sensor that was hooked up to the VR generating computer, and placed between the teeth, over the tongue. The sensor picked up and recorded the force exerted by the teeth and tongue to chew up food of different consistencies.

Biological sensors made of lipid and polymer membranes recorded the major chemical components of each food's taste. Finally, a microphone recorded the audible vibrations produced in the jawbone while chewing.

The result of all this work was a long, thin tube the user placed in their mouth. Hollow so it could pump chemicals in, and as resistant to pressure as the thin-film force sensor used before - basically it was a shape memory material, which could adjust to resist pressure by different electrical signals. The tube resisted the user's bites and chews to the same degree as whichever food it was simulating.

To complete the experience, the tube squirted a mixture of flavourings onto the tongue. The chemicals stimulate the five basic taste sensations: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami - the taste of monosodium glutamate. Meanwhile, a tiny speaker played back the sound of a chewing jawbone in the user's ear.

In 2003, Iwata stated that his team had successfully simulated many foods, including cheese, crackers, confectionery and Japanese snacks. One remaining step still to be tackled was to use a vaporiser to deliver appropriate smells to the nose.

Virtual food technology can also be evilly entertaining as the development team found out - changing a dry cream cracker to soft strawberry jelly mid-chew, created interesting - and hilarious reactions in the poor, suffering test users.

Sadly, the last time Hiroo Iwata's taste simulator publicly announced results was at SIGGRAPH 2003. No news has emerged since then, at least before this article's production, three years later, so it is unknown if this project is still functioning.

Taste Maps

Taste is mostly smell, this has long been known, the tongue is only capable of identifying the basic flavours: sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami. Everything else is detected in the nose.

These flavours are sensed when the drink is first swallowed, and the first exhale after that, carries the remnants in the air stream, up into the back of the nose. This first breath after swallowing is very important, as it tells researchers exactly what the taste is. Only one problem; how do you gain access to someone's nose, to reliably tell what that first gasp of air contains?

In 2004, the first solution to this problem was aired. Alexandra Boelrijk at NIZO Food Research and colleagues at flavourings company Quest International and Wageningen University in the Netherlands developed the artificial throat. This simple clamp-operated device could drink any liquid, and then breathe out, exhaling the air back into a 'nasal sensor' for testing. This for the first time allowed researchers to build up a taste map. Understanding how the tongue and nose work togeter, and how each food maps onto the senses.

This has allowed researchers to build up a database of good, and bad tastes, together with their ingredients.

Over time it is hoped taste maps will develop to such a point that new tastes can be mapped onto the database, purely from extracting data a bout known tastes. This is one of the first steps necessary to truly create virtual tasting.

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