The Light Side: Electric Spoon Delivers Tastes All On Its Own

Plus: Dexmo: Exoskeleton for VR Control and Remote Manipulation; and Validating Complex Electronic Design? Just Follow the Ants

sb-3Diabetics, rejoice. We have some potentially sweet news for you. 

Scientists may have indirectly come up with an answer for people who suffer from diabetes and can't take in sugar: a tasty spoon that allows them to experience sweetness through electrical pulses. This digital taste simulator, in the form of a ubiquitous utensil, uses tiny electric currents to recreate tastes on the tongue. On the weird but ingenious device fronting as a spoon are tiny electrodes spread all around that by delivering pulses of different frequencies and magnitudes can create the major taste sensations of sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, and sourness. We presume the exact combinations of these remain proprietary secrets like the formula for Coca-Cola or the Colonel's 11 herbs and spices.

The device was developed at New York University Abu Dhabi, which then was tested on 30 volunteer diners. If that wasn't enough, a water bottle studded with those taste electrodes was also created for the volunteers to try out. Participants tested out the digital taste simulator (mmmm, sounds delicious) with plain water and oatmeal and rated the gadget between 40 and 83 percent successful at recreating different tastes. This meant the volunteers tasted from sweet to salty oatmeal as intended or not intended, perhaps, but likely not bitter porridge, since that taste was determined to be the most difficult to reproduce.

Some volunteers were distracted by the metallic taste of the electrodes (yuck!), in fact, so we shouldn't expect sudden commercialization of the digital taste simulator. Ain't that the pits? Although more work obviously needs to be done to perfect the electrode-studded spoon, the folks behind it are hopeful that products can hit the market within the next few years. They also want to use colored lights in conjunction with the electrodes to boost the intensity of the flavors.

"Taste is not only taste. It's a multisensory sensation, so we need smell, color, previous experiences, texture," said Nimesha Ranasinghe, lead member of the development team. "I am trying to integrate different aspects of these sensations." Perhaps they want to start trademarking names like the Pewtensil.

More seriously, the technology could be beneficial to people with medical conditions that prevent them from enjoying sugar and salt. Chemotherapy patients could also find the device useful, since this cancer treatment reduces the sense of taste.

For others, it could just be a flavor enhancer allowing them to lower sugar or salt intake without zapping out taste. Who's hungry?

Dexmo: Exoskeleton for VR Control and Remote Manipulation

Dexta Robotics is running a Kickstarter campaign for Dexmo, its exoskeleton hand to manipulate objects in virtual reality. Dexmo is unique because it allows the user to feel feedback from the digital world, acting not just as inputs to the game but outputs to your hand.

Demonstrations on the Kickstarter campaign page show many examples of users moving objects. A robotic hand moves as the Dexmo is flexed and opened by the user. Several digital hands move and demonstrate all six degrees of freedom.

Rotational sensors in the fingers and joints give feedback to the system to tell the virtual hand when to open and close. If the system senses that the digital hand is closing around a digital object, the controller applies a small braking force to the fingers, making the user feel the resistance of the object.

My favorite example in the video is a user wearing two Dexmos, who performs a remote bomb disposal simulation. Each robotic gripper follows the movements of the user in unison and moves the object cleanly and quickly. There is a video on the Kickstarter page.

Dexmo is amazing to watch, looking futuristic and functional. The Kickstarter video noted that they couldn't make it small, so they made it cool. A GIF image on the Kickstarter page scrolls through all 17 iterations of the system's development and is fascinating to watch.

Backers can pledge $179 and get one Dexmo F2 unit, with a free software development kit and sample programs. The units are expected to ship in June 2015.

This project is huge and can be used for virtual reality developers, simulation analysts, manufacturing, and gaming. Fully developing this technology could give us the ability to feel a punch from a video game or allow deep-sea drillers to physically feel resistance remotely.

This article was originally published on and is adapted in its entirety with permission. For more stories like this please visit

Validating Complex Electronic Design? Just Follow the Ants 

When engineers have increasing difficulty in accurately validating that their designs meet spec as electronics become more and more complex, Who can they call? Michael Hsiao, design verification expert and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech, who is studying how to overcome design verification challenges using the unorthodox method of harnessing ant swarm intelligence.

As electronics designers add more features and capabilities into ever-smaller devices, it is getting more difficult to verify those designs because verification engineers wound up with exponential-sized search spaces. It's a feeble attempt searching all possible states in these spaces using a single abstract model, with the computational cost becoming unfeasible, so Hsiao has created algorithms, based on his studies of ant colonies' efficiency in finding routes to food sources, that  are aimed at cutting down overall cost of design processes and enable better validation of large, complex designs.

He said that the computational efficiency of  his "swarm-intelligence framework," which he calls the Ant Colony Optimization method, "is a vast improvement over other methods, covering a far higher percentage of possible states in far less time."

His mathematical formulas came from employing a stimuli generator on the design to create a database of possible vectors, which are then populated by a swarm of intelligent agents. Like real ants, the agents deposit a pheromone along their paths that attract other agents. The pheromone evaporates over time, resulting in a reinforcement of the most efficient pathways and allowing aggregation of knowledge gained from a large number of agents. Basically, it's like an approach that boils down the collective learning gained by ants that enables them to say to each other, "Hey, guys and gals, this is the best path to the strawberry jam!"

After multiple runs of the simulation, it also finds and tests the "hard corners" of a design, after the highest fitness values are removed.

"In this regard, the proposed swarm-intelligent framework emphasizes effective modeling and learning from collective effort by extracting the intelligence acquired during the search over multiple abstract models," Hsiao said.

The National Science Foundation has awarded Hsiao a grant of $418,345 to further his research.

"A poorly verified design compromises both the system's reliability and its security," said the Virginia Tech professor. "The success of this project not only will push the envelope on design validation, but will also offer new stimuli generation methods to related areas, such as post-silicon validation and validating trust of hardware."



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