'Digital Lollipop' Simulates Tastes Like Sweet and Sour Without the Calories

The future of low-calorie snacking may be closer to Jetsons-style food capsules than baked chips and Diet Pepsi. A group of Singaporean researchers are developing a "digital lollipop" that can simulate the tastes of bitter, sour, salty, and sweet.

The digital lollipop uses electrical stimulation of the tongue to create different flavor sensations. The system manipulates the magnitude, frequency, and polarity of electrical currents to mimic different types of tastes.

"Lollipop" is something of a euphemism — the device looks something like a tongue compressor attached to a computer. It's not going to start showing up alongside the Twizzlers anytime soon. But the idea has intriguing potential. Lead developer Nimesha Ranasinghe, an engineering professor at the National University of Singamore, envisions the technology being used in computer games and virtual realities.

"In a gaming environment we could come up with a new reward system based on taste sensations," he 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."

Future cooking shows may be able to virtually transmit taste to viewers using the system, which they're calling TOIP, Taste Over Internet Protocol. The digital lollipop concept could also be used in healthcare, allowing cancer patients to get back a sense of taste lost to chemotherapy, or diabetics to get the psychological effects of sugar without the negative health effects.

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