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A Tech Twist: Hacking Your Sense of Smell and Taste

Contact Author Ryan Daily, Assistant Editor, Perfumer & Flavorist
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VR and our scents

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In the last 100 years, technology has been at the forefront of many major cultural or societal changes. From the emergence of automobiles to portable access to the internet, there hasn’t been an aspect of life that technology hasn’t touched. For the flavor and fragrance industry, this is no exception. Technological advancements have provided opportunities to create safer, innovative and more effective products.

Last month’s F&F Literature Review, we looked at the various ways that modern living has impacted our sense of taste and smell. This month, we look at how the emergence of technology can improve our lives and possibly lead to a better understanding of our sense of smell and taste.

A Scent for Your Morning Commute

For many people, driving can be a stressful task. For many people, driving can be a challenging multitask. Between changing lanes to navigating road construction and dealing with other drivers, there are many reasons why people might feel stressed while driving. However, research done by Dmitrijs Dmitrenko, Emanuela Maggioni and Marianna Obrist of the University of Sussexa suggests that fragrances might be the solution to a less stressful ride.

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To test if olfactory notification can be more effective than visual notifications, researchers developed a driving simulator where participants would be instructed to perform various driving tasks. During the simulator, participants would be randomly given three notifications to perform a certain task. The three notifications would indicate when participants needed to slow down, depart lanes or when they were a short distance from another vehicle. Each task was then paired with a particular scent; lavender for slowing down, peppermint for shortening vehicle distance and lemon for lane departures for the test portion of the simulation.

Once the simulation and test were constructed, researchers invited 22 participants with a mean age of 31.33 (8 females, 14 males) and with varied driving experience for the study. Before the simulation began, participants were given an olfactory test to ensure their smelling abilities. Once in the simulator, participants started off with three minutes of test driving to familiarize themselves with the simulator. Following the three minutes, researchers began recording occurrences of the three notifications. During the next three minutes, a visual notification with a scent would occur at random. Notifications during this period would either total a minute or a minute and half of the three minutes.

Upon completion of the test, they found that the notifications with accompanying scents produced more favorable outcomes. When just given the visual notification to slow down, participants made an average of 7.71 mistakes, opposed to just 4.44 mistakes with the lavender scent. Similar results were found on the other two tasks. For short inter-vehicle distance, participants made an average of 2.53 mistakes with just the visual notification and 1.41 with the scent. Lane departures saw an average of 3.07 mistakes with only the visual notification and only 1.27 mistakes with the scent of lemon. In addition to positive outcomes, participants found the scent less distracting and more helpful in providing driving instructions.

Not Just Tongues and Noses

Eating is a multisensory experience – one that not only relies on our sense of taste and smell but also visual, auditory and tactile properties of what is being consumed and our current surroundings. A Journal of Food Science studyb suggests these other senses can play a larger role in how we taste and determine what we find enjoyable.

Using VR technology, researchers tested how visual and auditory elements can impact the taste of a sample. In a pilot test, participants were given three identical blue cheese samples and asked to sample each in three different virtual reality contexts (a sensory booth, a park bench and a cow barn). Each virtual environment was created by using a 360-degree video with overlaying audio, text, sensory scales and images. After the VR experience, participants were asked questions about the saltiness and pungency of the cheese. At the conclusion of the test, the participants rated the blue cheese consumed in the barn setting as more pungent, supporting the idea that our sense of taste can be impacted by other environmental factors.

A Chin Up on Flavor Enhancement

Galvanic tongue stimulation (GTS) uses electrical pulses to enhance, inhibit and create taste sensations. A growing area of sensory research, GTS can be used in virtual reality devices for entertainment or health purposes, like influencing healthier eating habits by stimulating sweet receptors.

In GTS research conducted by the University of Tokyo and Osaka Universityc, the team reported an alternative method to traditional GTS, which involves the challenge of attaching electrodes securely to the mouth. Instead, the team proposed a less cumbersome approach by using galvanic jaw stimulation, where electrodes are attached to the mouth, the interior of the chin and the back of the neck.

In a demonstration, participants were asked to drink water with the five different tastes (salty, sweet, acidic, umami and bitter) and then exposed to the stimulation. Using 20 Hz of electrical stimulation, participants reported that the taste sensation lasted longer, while 1Hz induced enhancements and certain taste suppressions.

Despite these findings, research is ongoing and replication in the future will strengthen the field’s positioning in industries exploring virtual reality (VR) as a tool to enrich consumer experiences through multisensory modalities.

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