Gastronaut creates tastes without food by magnetically stimulating the tongue. Taste receptors fall in two main structural groups: sour and salty are voltage-gated ion channel receptors, and sweet, bitter, and umami are G-protein coupled receptors. The former responds almost instantly to electricity while the latter takes seconds to register taste because its protein-based process is more complex.

Early tests of Gastronaut used cheap electrodes and Arduino to create the pulses. All basic tastes were recorded except umami. The new version is wireless and uses a coil to make the magnetic field, safe and confined enough for human use. Currently a pulse generator creates the pulses to research how complex waveforms taste. And before that, a model head is made to optimize comfort and further confine the magnetic field.

Magnetic nerve stimulation has been studied since the 1980s, but no popular consumer product has risen from it yet, mostly restricted to therapy. Gastronaut seeks to become that consumer product in the digital age. Virtual tastes have many applications outside of science. First, virtual tastes can alleviate overeating for bored eaters. There is no need for bitter sugar substitutes. Hopefully, this will alleviate America’s obesity epidemic and lead to happier, healthier lives.

They can also be a form of entertainment. Virtual reality can sure use a new dimension—taste—with all those cooking games. Those allergic to peanuts can taste peanut butter; people can taste exotic fruit in the winter; and you could taste inedibles like soap or poop just for the curiosity.

What inspired you (or your team)?

In 2014, Google released an April Fools joke, Google Nose, that would allow users to digitally smell what they searched. I wanted to make it happen, but I wasn’t educated enough and had few connections to useful people who could help, so I forgot about it. After all, who would trust a twelve year old?

Fast forward to last year, sitting in anatomy class. I had recently learned about the electrical activities of nerves and a scientific article about electrically stimulating the tongue for flavors. It only managed to create salty and sour. Although they used pricey silver electrodes, I had rudimentary materials and wanted to experience it. My friends and I tried their experiment, matching their results.

But I wanted to do better. I researched the types of taste receptors and found a principle behind making different flavors while the article’s experiment shot in the dark with their electrical patterns, basing on frequency alone. I made the device taste sweet, and business immediately came to mind. People would pay to eat sweets without getting fat or ingesting harmful chemicals. I teamed up with friends to write a plan to market the device which earned a prize at a business competition. I even brought out my artistic side to print a pretty plastic shell for it.

Encouraged by peers at last, I was excited to file a patent only to get stopped by the exorbitant cost. Then, I saw there was room to improve. I personally wouldn’t buy a device that appears to shock my mouth, so I went wireless, which is more marketable.

Wireless digital stimulation would also allow digital smelling, just like my original inspiration. A group is currently testing digital smell by sticking electrodes up the nose, a very distressing process that will flop in the market. After the wireless taste device is perfected, I plan to add smell capabilities.