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The future is flavored: UMaine professor creates a virtual cocktail

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“I’m not creating technology, I’m creating experiences,” said Dr. Ranasinghe, pouring water into the glass basin of the Virtual Cocktail. He connected the device to his laptop via USB, opened the Virtual Cocktail mobile app on his phone and powered on the device with a few taps of his finger.

Dr. Nimesha Ranasinghe is an Assistant Professor in the School of Computing and Information Science. His research focuses on Multisensory Interactive Media, Augmented Reality, and Human-Computer Interaction. He is well-known for his Digital Taste enhancing inventions, including the Virtual Cocktail, or Vocktail.

Dr. Ranasinghe explained that there were two main functions of the Vocktail. The first, and most ambitious, is to simulate an entire drinking experience - from the color of the drink, the taste, and the smell. Ranasinghe hopes to turn water into wine, or into any beverage of your choice. This is done by tricking your senses into thinking you are drinking a cocktail, for example, when you are drinking water.

The Vocktail is equipped with RGB LED lights for color, built-in scent cartridges for smell and two silver electrodes attached to the rim for taste. By tapping into your preconceived expectations and memories of a drink using color, smell, and taste, the Vocktail simulates the experience of drinking any beverage you want.

The second function of the Vocktail is to augment the flavor of an existing beverage.

“If you don’t like the taste of your drink, the Vocktail can change it,” said Dr. Ranasinghe. The idea is basically the same as simulation - but instead of water it’s diet coke or seltzer.

I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Ranasinghe in his MIM Lab (Multisensory Interactive Media Lab) and try the Vocktail for myself. I sampled a wide variety of simulated beverages including Dr. Pepper, Coke, Sprite and a mojito.

Dr. Ranasinghe adjusted the LEDs, aroma and taste of the Vocktail from his phone in a matter of seconds. Of course, the taste of the simulated beverage isn’t exactly the same as the real deal - but it’s darn close. I took a sip and the first thing that hit me was the smell - carried up from the base of the Vocktail to the drinking area via micropumps. The aroma alone made the experience fairly convincing (especially with the mojito). After all, taste is about 80 percent smell.

The idea behind the RGB LED lights, said Dr. Ranasinghe, is to help create the appearance of your simulated beverage - a good idea, but not as effective in the daylight. Lastly, the silver electrodes activated as I placed my lips on the rim of the Vocktail, sending microamps to my taste buds. The electrodes are designed to create the taste of sweet, sour or bitter. The “taste” of the simulated soda flavors I sampled were not as convincing as the mojito. The simulated taste was the perfect mix of sweet (sugar and mint) sour (lime juice) and bitter (rum).

It is clear the level of passion and pride Dr. Ranasinghe has for the Vocktail. During our conversation, Ranasinghe was all smiles - excited to talk about his invention and share his ideas for the present and for the future.

He noted that he is “focusing on health problems now and in the near future.” He is concerned with the health issues that many Americans face and thinks the Vocktail and similar technology can help. Now more than ever, obesity and health-related illnesses caused by a poor diet and lack of exercise are prevalent in American life. The Vocktail could be one solution. It is not unthinkable to see multisensory technologies become a mainstream part of life in the coming years.

So when is the Vocktail going to be on the market? Dr. Ranasinghe seems optimistic.

“I am very interested to make it happen, but I’m not a businessman.” He added that the next chapter for the Vocktail is to work with manufacturers to make the Vocktail more visually appealing for potential customers.

All in all, the Vocktail is no substitute for the real deal. As far as most people are concerned, I would wager, real alcohol is pretty important. That said, Dr. Ranasinghe has got his foot in the door to the future.

The Vocktail is an impressive piece of technology - beyond anything people could have imagined years ago. It is only a matter of time before we see simulated beverages that are more and more alike their real-life counterparts.  

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