Enter the maze

Digital lollipop: no calories, just electronics!

by Jane Waite, Queen Mary University of London

Lots of multicoloured sweets: copyright www.istockphoto.com 17013855

Can a computer create a taste in your mouth? Imagine scrolling down a list of flavours and then savouring your sweet choice from a digital lollipop. Not keen on that flavour, just click and choose a different one, and another and another. No calories, just the taste.

Nimesha Ranasinghe, a researcher at the National University of Singapore is developing a Tongue Mounted Digital Taste Interface, or digital lollipop. It sends tiny electrical signals to the very tip of your tongue to stimulate your taste buds and create a virtual taste!

One of UNESCO's 2014 '10 best innovations in the world', the prototype doesn't quite look like a lollipop (yet). There are two parts to this sweet sensation, the wearable tongue interface and the control system. The bit you put in your mouth, the tongue interface, has two small silver electrodes. You touch them to the tip of your tongue to get the taste hit. The control system creates a tiny electrical current and a minuscule temperature change, creating a taste as it activates your taste buds.

The prototype lollipop can create sour, salty, bitter, sweet, minty, and spicy sensations but it's not just a bit of food fun. What if you had to avoid sweet foods or had a limited sense of taste? Perhaps the lollipop can help people with food addictions, just like the e-cigarette has helped those trying to give up smoking?

Perhaps the lollipop can help people with food addictions

But eating is more than just a flavour on your tongue, it is a multi-modal experience, you see the red of a ripe strawberry, hear the crunch of a carrot, feel sticky salt on chippy fingers, smell the Sunday roast, anticipate that satisfied snooze afterwards. How might computers simulate all that? Does it start with a digital lollipop? We will have to wait and see, hear, taste, smell, touch and feel!

Taste over the Internet

The Singapore team are exploring how to send tastes over the Internet. They have suggested rules to send 'taste' messages between computers, called the Taste Over Internet Protocol, including a messaging format called TasteXML They've also outlined the design for a mobile phone with electrodes to deliver the flavour! Sweet or salt anyone?