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Digital Lollipop!

Virtual taste, added to the marketing toolbox. DJK

How many licks does it take to get to the bottom of a digital lollipop? That’s the question you could soon be asking yourself thanks to a team of researchers at the National University of Singapore who are trying to build a digital lollipop that can simulate taste.

While it might sound complicated, the technology is relatively simple. When the lollipop, which is made of a silver electrode, touches the tip of the tongue it reproduces four well-known tastes: salty, sweet, sour or bitter. Together these flavors can create different simulations close to the real thing.
The research is being led by Nimesha Ranasinghe, a Ph.D. research scholar in the university’s department of electrical and computer engineering. He hopes that people will one day be able to lick their television or smartphone to taste virtual things.

Mr. Ranasinghe told New Scientist this week that a person’s taste receptors are fooled by varying the alternating current from the lollipop and slight but rapid changes in temperature. While the project has been in the works for over a year, it was presented in its latest iteration at the ACM Multimedia conference in Spain last month.

You won’t be able to lick your iPhone to taste some strawberry ice cream or a bar of chocolate just yet. The researchers still need to add a number of simulated tastes, including more sweet and sugary flavors, and add smell and texture, which would help fool the brain into believing a taste is real.

If this experimental work ever makes its way to the commercial world — assuming it’s not too expensive to produce — you could imagine a number of scenarios where it could be used.

Advertisers might include the taste of a product in an add on your computer or television. Movies could become more interactive, allowing people to taste the food an actor is eating. And the technology could even have medical applications, allowing people with diabetes, for example, to taste sugar without harming their actual blood sugar levels.

“In a gaming environment we could come up with a new reward system based on taste sensations,” Mr. Ranasinghe told New Scientist. “For example, if you complete a game task successfully, or complete a level, we can give a sweet, minty or sour reward. If you fail we can deliver a bitter message.”

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