Those who have seen the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, will likely remember the lickable fruit wallpaper that supposedly tasted real. Now, scientists are not far off this concept after creating a "digital taste simulator" that can produce four main elements of taste - salty, sour, bitter and sweet.
Details of the device were presented at the 21st ACM International Conference on Multimedia in Spain last month.
Created by a team of researchers from the National University of Singapore and led by Nimesha Ranasinghe, the device - called the Tongue Mounted Digital Taste Interface - can transmit the taste elements through two silver electrodes once it touches the tip of the tongue.
The device does this by manipulating three properties of electric currents - magnitude, frequency and polarity. This causes the brain to think the user is tasting food.
The creators believe the device could lead to people one day being able to taste the food they see on cooking shows.
Commenting on the device's experimental results, presented at the 13th ACM International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing, the researchers say:
"The initial experiments reveal that the method is viable and deserves further developments. This requires further analyses of the properties of electric pulses (current, frequency and voltage) on tongue along with the stimulating material.
The experimental results suggested that sourness, bitterness and saltiness are the main sensations that could be evoked at present."
Potential health benefits
But more importantly, the researchers say the device could have health benefits. Ranasinghe told New Scientist that people with diabetes could use the device to stimulate sweet sensations without harming their blood sugar levels.
Furthermore, he says that cancer patients could use it to improve or regenerate their sense of taste - something that can be severely impaired by chemotherapy.
A video from the research team detailing how the digital simulator works can be viewed below:
At present, the researchers note that the device is quite large, but they are looking at reducing the size to a point that allows the electrodes to stimulate tastes when the user's mouth is closed.
Digital lollipop in the pipeline
The team is also in the process of creating a "Digital Sour Lollipop" on the back of the digital simulator, according to an article presented by the team in Wearable Computers.
Explaining early results of the device, the researchers say:
"Initial experimental results of this system show the controllability of sour taste up to three levels of intensities using the electrical stimulation on human tongue."
The creators note that it is early days for these devices, and they want to further enhance the systems to be able to transmit smell and texture to the user, as well as work on better stimulation of the fifth taste, umami - known as the "savory" taste.
Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that performing food rituals before we eat can change the taste and perception of food.