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Taste and smell are challenging our thinking about interactive system design

Eliciting people’s experiences of taste using non-verbal methods

In the future, people will interact with technology not only through seeing, hearing and touching, but also through taste and smell. Dr Marianna Obrist (Lecturer in Informatics) is carrying out pioneering research into how multi-sensory experiences can be used in the design of interactive technology.

Dr Obrist is presenting her initial findings this week at ACM CHI 2014, the flagship international academic conference on human-computer interfaces. Her two research papers introduce new ways of talking about taste and smell interaction, through detailed description and classification schemes adapted from the food and wine industry. She wants to challenge traditional design thinking in human-computer interaction by establishing a rich understanding of the experiential qualities of taste and smell.

With respect to taste, Dr Obrist conducted a study in collaboration with researchers at the Universities of Oxford, Newcastle and Bristol. Using odourless and colourless stimuli, people were asked to express their experiences in relation to the five basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami) both verbally and via non-verbal elicitation methods.

Participants described sour, for instance, as short-lived: “You’ve got this 'Whoa' sensation, feels quite strong to start with. Then it has gone super quick”, while umami was experienced as lingering “So it is kind of strong and it also stays. It doesn’t have a peak; it doesn’t go up and down; it just stays”. Experiences of different tastes also created 'whole body' experiences, such as for sweet “It’s just sort of the feeling of viscosity, the sweetness and this cloud is just a bit more mouth feel”.

The experimental findings on taste experiences have yielded a rich set of descriptors allowing designers to talk about taste in a new, multi-faceted way. Dr Obrist explains the relevance of these findings for technology: “If you are playing a computer game, the specific characteristics of individual tastes could be useful to enhance the gaming experience. When a person moves between related levels of a game, a continuing taste like bitter or salty is useful. Whereas when a user is moving to distinct levels or is performing a side challenge, an explosive taste like sour, sweet, or umami might be useful.” She has created a short video of her taste research.

In another study, Dr Obrist is exploring smell experiences. While there is emerging technology based on smell stimulation and generation, we have only limited understanding of what smells to design for and what smells people would like to experience. This work, in collaboration with researchers at the Universities of Basel and Copenhagen, used a large online survey to understand the role of smell in relation to personal memorable moments. A total of 439 ‘smell stories’ were collected and analysed with respect to the specific emotions they elicited. Dr Obrist has created a short video highlighting the role of smell.

Dr Obrist and her collaborators are now exploring interactive visualisation techniques in order to represent the findings to designers. For more details, follow her research on http://www.multisensory.info/.

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By: John Carroll
Last updated: Friday, 25 April 2014