Forks, spoons, knives and those fancy cutleries were once invented for a convenient and hygienic dining experience. Over time they evolved into exquisite pieces adorning dining tables, exhibiting sophistication, luxury and class.
But what if dining can be made more convenient and fun? What if you don’t need cutleries or even mere movement of hands for conveying that favorite meal of yours to mouth? What always seemed like a figment of imagination, a scene in a sci-fi movie, a twist of magic tricks or a hilarious dream of a kid can now become reality. Scientists at the Sussex Computer-Human interaction (SCHI) Lab at the U.K’s University of Sussex have developed TastyFloats, a contactless food delivery system that aims to levitate, convey, and deliver delicious bites directly onto your tongue. That’s right; the food goes straight from the plate to your mouth without ever being touched. A paper consolidating their underlying research has been submitted recently (Oct’2017)
The magic powering this innovative gustatory experience spins around the use of innovative ultrasound technology, or rather object manipulation using ultrasound. Two-phased arrays of ultrasonic transducers opposite to each other form a standing wave of ultrasound in the space between, and very small amounts of liquids and solids can be suspended in the nodes of the wave. Changing the phase, results in movement of these nodes in three dimensions, pulling the contents along with it, and allowing the materials to be transported in 3D space, while staying between the arrays.
Manipulation of objects, including particle transport, using ultrasound has been an active area of research in recent times. U.S Patent applications US20130047728A1 and US20170004819A1 for instance, describe using a controlled, variable ultrasound signal to create a pressure field such that a particle within the region of interest levitates and moves in response to changes in the pressure field. The latter proposes using ultrasonic phased arrays to generate the acoustic-potential field (standing waves) for objects to be levitated and animated. Acoustic/Ultrasound levitation and floatation based conveyance of small liquid and solid samples have been also been demonstrated in patents such as US6467350B1, JP4318249B2 or JPH11208887A.
Though, at first, TastyFloat’s technology might sound like a simple physical experiment, implementing the same with food can be rather tricky. This is because the range of food items that we consume, and their physical properties are so varied, especially given that most food items aren’t necessarily uniform in size, shape, and density throughout. For instance, the ultrasound imparts heat to the item being levitated, causing alcohols to start evaporating midway. High-density foods (like cheese) would require more power than low-density foods. The overall system hence has to be tuned to adapt to foods of different weights to be able to control their trajectories so that they land on just the right spot on your tongue. So far, TastyFloats has been tested to levitate tiny droplets of wine, blue cheese, bread, lettuce, meat, bread, and raspberry grain.
Reducing food to isolated bits (morsels) and using acoustic levitation technology has a further factor of consideration – Perception of Taste! The researchers decided to experiment with three of the five basic tastes: sweet (a positive taste), bitter (a negative taste), and umami, which is a savory taste that can also enhance other flavors. The idea was to investigate how our taste buds are affected by the transportation of the food we eat, in addition to the food itself. The researchers asked a group of volunteers to test TastyFloats with the three basic tastes, delivered in three different volumes (5 microliters, 10µL, and 20µL), and compare it with tongue delivery via pipette as a non-levitating alternative. The participants report a significant difference between levitated taste and tastes delivered via pipette, which was quiet intense, the bitter taste was difficult to distinguish, while the sweet tastes were recognizable and intense. The researchers are willing to use this finding intelligently, suggesting that TastyFloats can be more suitable for dessert delivery, although it could also be used to make bitter (but healthy) foods more palatable to people who wouldn’t otherwise enjoy them.
Interestingly, this levitation based novel food delivery technique can also work wonders in making virtual reality experiences more multisensory. Imagine being in a virtual environment that not only looks real but tastes real as well — without one needing to do any more than opening mouth.
TastyFloats could levitate from single food morsels to multiple food morsels. According to the researchers “Complex food, such as the ingredients of a burger combining bread, meat, and lettuce can be easily levitated. We can specify and control the path of a set of ingredients and ensure that the food arrives on the customer’s tongue in the chef’s preferred fashion (e.g., first bread then meat). This opens the possibility of making recipes by mixing tastes directly on the tongue of the customer to create surprising experiences.”
Be it the lazy lads, virtual reality enthusiasts or people with disabilities, having a culinary experience without having to move a finger, can be one invention to certainly make you sit back and relax!
(Featured image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nasa2explore/32301315311/)