Credit: Hacking Design

The rise of virtual and augmented reality systems have only just begun; we’re almost positive we’ll see even more VR demos at CES this year, and the convergence of smart home technology and VR/AR has only just begun. But what about virtual eating? Virtual reality is designed to simulate sounds and sights of an environment – but could it simulate taste and smell too?

That’s the premise of a project from researchers in Japan and Singapore who have been testing out electrical and thermal probs that can stimulate muscles and trick the human brain to believe it was tasting food that wasn’t really there. In one experiment, scientists focused on the neurons that are sensitive to hot and cold temperature changes that also play a role in how we taste things. By rapidly heating or cooling a square of thermoelectric elements on the tip of someone’s tongue, the user experiences a sweet taste. The thermal experiment also produced some strange results, with some participants reporting a spicy flavor when the probs were heated up and a minty flavor when they were cooled down.

In another experiment, electrical currents were used instead of heat to enhance or create a salty, sour or bitter taste in someone’s mouth.

The last experiment used electrode’s attached to the masseter muscle, one of four muscles in the jaw used for mastication (chewing), to simulate biting through actual food. The strength of the electric impulse controlled the texture, or hardness of the simulated food and the duration of the impulse controlled the elasticity sensation of the jaw opening and closing during chewing. By varying the strength and duration, researchers were able to more realistically produce the sensation of biting into real food.

The role of heat as it relates to taste isn’t a new concept, it’s one chefs have been using to transform dishes and create unique flavors. But using solely heat or electricity to mimic a specific taste or sensation So it turns out, your taste buds, and even jaw muscles can be hacked – making it possible to have a virtual reality dining experience without having to suffer the calories.