During the pandemic, Tokyo’s bustling Meiji University campus stood still. My students were confined to their homes, appearing only as small figures on my screen during Zoom lectures on human-computer interaction. I spent the days in my lab, looking for ways to pass the time.
On a particularly bland day in 2020, I was reminiscing about how, before the pandemic, Tokyo used to be packed with people who had flown across the world to enjoy the exciting food scene. But now restaurants were empty and people longed for foods they once relished. I missed drinking wine in a bar, watching others enjoying their evenings. I wondered how I could contribute during these trying times. That’s when inspiration struck: why not create a device to bring the flavours of the world into people’s homes?
In Japan, companies use taste sensors to monitor the quality of products. These devices measure the strength of the five basic tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter, umami – and assign each a numerical value. It dawned on me that if taste could be quantified, perhaps it could also be recreated. I liquefied foods such as pizza and fries, measured how they rated, then made 10 liquid samples that each represented a facet of the taste. When replicating the taste of food, it’s like following a recipe; I combined the 10 liquid samples to reflect the taste sensor’s measurements of the liquefied dish.
Taste the TV (TTTV), released in 2021, looks like a television screen – but you can lick it. Once the viewer selects a dish from the screen menu, an image of the food will appear, and above the screen an apparatus containing my liquid flavour samples in air canisters will spray in a combination that creates the taste of the chosen food. The spray then rolls hygienic film over the screen and voilà – they can enjoy the taste of pizza without even biting into a slice.
My invention was received pretty well worldwide. The BBC described it as “netlicks” because I suggested we could live in a world with downloadable taste content. I’m also in the process of commercialising the product.
My students and I have always been interested in developing new “tele‑taste” products. We look for how else to challenge traditional ways of enjoying media, and we knew we wanted to expand on TTTV. The sequel, TTTV2, allows people to spray flavours directly on to their food, transforming a plain bowl of rice into paella, truffle risotto – you name it. I’ve since gone a step further. My latest invention, TTTV3, produces unknown tastes using Large Language Models (LLM), similar to how we use ChatGPT or other AI to generate content. It looks more like a coffee machine than a TV, and uses 20 flavour canisters. All you have to do is describe what kind of dish you want, or show the machine a photo of your food of choice. I can ask TTTV3 to generate the taste of a cloud, or poisonous mushrooms – without the actual poison (it tastes delicious by the way, like a well-seasoned mushroom).
I would love this technology to become a staple in households worldwide, like any other home appliance. It could broaden our culinary horizons, and help people with food allergies enjoy certain dishes through these regenerated flavours, without any adverse reactions. Users could access a library of flavours – like movies on a streaming platforms. There might be a time when you can “download” food and savour it in the comfort of your own home, making rare dishes more accessible to people, like really expensive wine or rare herbs.
I’m thankful my work in this field is getting recognised. In September, I won the Ig Nobel prize for nutrition with another professor for our work on electrified chopsticks that make your food taste saltier. I’m excited for what’s next, and I think this is just the beginning for tele-taste media. Perhaps in 10 years’ time we could implant a device that uses the same technology as the TTTV3 directly into people’s mouths, allowing them to experience any taste they could dream of at any moment.
As told to Hanako Montgomery
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