Digital synesthesia

Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman invented the Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer (VEST), a wearable tactile display that translates myriad kinds of information, from speech to sounds to digital data, into patterns of vibrations on the skin. The device was inspired by Eagleman's study of synesthesia, the fascinating neurological phenomenon whereby stimulation of one sense involuntarily triggers another sensory pathway. From Smithsonian:

The neuroscientist believes that the versatility and plasticity of the brain make it fundamentally receptive to forming new pathways of sensory input. “The brain gets this information from the world, but the brain doesn’t actually have any way of knowing: were these photons, were these sound compression aids, was this pressure?” Eagleman says. As he explains it, the brain simply transforms these diverse stimuli into electrochemical spikes and uses these signals to create a mental representation of the world. The VEST would do this same work for all sorts of data by translating it into interpretable vibrations—giving its wearer a veritable “sixth sense.”

Eagleman is developing the VEST with an open API, so that others can experiment with the types of data it can convert into vibrations. “We’ve thought of 20 really cool things to feed in, which we’ve been experimenting with, but the community will think of 20,000 streams of data to feed in,” he says.

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TastyFloats levitates food morsels to your mouth

TastyFloats is a "contactless food delivery system" that uses ultrasound to raise bits of food and droplets of drink to your mouth without any utensils at all. While this method to levitate small objects is well known, what's fascinating is that a small scientific study shows that the levitated food apparently tastes better. Researchers from the University of Sussex describe TastyFloats and their sensory experiment in a scientific paper they'll present at this month's ACM Interactive Surfaces and Spaces conference. From IEEE Spectrum:

The researchers experimented with three of the five basic tastes: sweet (a positive taste), bitter (a negative taste), and umami, which is a savory taste that can also enhance other flavors. The researchers asked a group of volunteers to test TastyFloats with the three basic tastes, delivered in three different volumes (5 microliters, 10µL, and 20µL), with tongue delivery via pipette as a non-levitating control. Participants were asked to identify each droplet, and then rated each on intensity, pleasantness, and satisfaction.

The most significant difference between levitated tastes and tastes delivered via pipette was in intensity: sweet tastes were more intense and recognizable, while bitter tastes were harder to distinguish. The researchers suggest that this might make TastyFloats more suitable for dessert delivery, although it could also be used to make bitter but healthy foods (like broccoli) more palatable to people who wouldn't otherwise enjoy them.

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The man who literally sniffed out the problems in NYC's subway

In the early 20th century, James "Smelly" Kelly used his legendary sense of smell and DIY inventions to find hazards, leaks, elephant poop, and eels that were causing problems in the New York City subway system. Atlas Obscura's Eric Grundhauser profiles the the man known as The Sniffer:

In addition to finding water leaks and plumbing issues, Kelly was also responsible for detecting dangerous gas and chemical leaks. From invisible gas fumes that could be ignited by a random spark, to gasoline draining into the system from above-ground garages, Kelly was there to find them out using his allegedly hypersensitive nose.

The most sensational tale of Kelly’s sense of smell was the time he was called to a 42nd Street station to suss out a stench that had overtaken the platforms. According to Kelly’s own account, the smell was so bad it almost bowled him over, but as he got his head back in the game, he pinpointed the source of the reek as… elephants. Amazingly, he was correct. The station in question had been built beneath the location of the old New York Hippodrome, which had been torn down in 1939. The Hippodrome had often featured a circus, and layers of elephant dung had ended up buried at the site. A broken water main had rehydrated the fossilized dung and subsequently leaked into the subway. Until, that is, Smelly Kelly was able to identify it.

"The Man Who Used His Nose to Keep New York’s Subways Safe" (Atlas Obscura) Read the rest

You can hear the difference between hot and cold water

Water is viscous. With heat, the viscosity drops. And you can hear the difference in its splash.

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Hearing lips and seeing voices

This video explains the weirdness of the McGurk effect, a perceptual illusion demonstrating that understanding speech is not just about what we hear, but also what we see. You can learn more about the McGurk effect at Yale's Haskins Laboratories dedicated to the science of the spoken and written wordl. (via Imaginary Foundation) Read the rest

Tongues aren't just for smelling

After you spent all that time in grade school conditioning yourself to know that snakes stick out their tongues in order to smell things, it turns out that those tricksy animals were also tasting with their tongues, all along. Read the rest

How food tastes isn't just about how the food tastes

Other senses besides taste matter in determining what your food tastes like and whether you like it. And we're not just talking about scent here. At Science Sushi, Christie Wilcox explains how things like noise levels, plate colors, and the weight of silverware affect what we think we like to eat. Read the rest

The Exploratorium's Sound Uncovered: A science museum in your hand (for free)

This review also appears on Download the Universe, a group blog reviewing the best (and worst, and just "meh") in science-related ebooks and apps.

When I go to science museums, I like to press the buttons. I'm convinced this is a special joy that you just do not grow out of. Hit the button. See something cool happen. Feel the little reward centers of your brain dance the watusi.

But, as a curmudgeonly grown-up, I also often feel like there is something missing from this experience. There have definitely been times when I've had my button-pushing fun and gotten a few yards away from the exhibit before I've had to stop and think, "Wait, did I just learn anything?"

Science museums are chaotic. They're loud. They're usually full of small children. Your brain is pulled in multiple directions by sights, sounds, and the knowledge that there are about 15 people behind you, all waiting for their turn to press the button, too. In fact, research has shown that adults often avoid science museums (and assume those places aren't "for them") precisely because of those factors.

Sound Uncovered is an interactive ebook published by The Exploratorium, the granddaddy of modern science museums. Really more of an app, it's a series of 12 modules that allow you to play with auditory illusions and unfamiliar sounds as you learn about how the human brain interprets what it hears, and how those ear-brain interactions are used for everything from selling cars to making music. Read the rest

What does the world look like when you're color blind?

On the left is a picture of me with my bike, taken by my friend Laura Kling. On the right is the same image, as it would be seen by a person with protanopia — a relatively common (as in, still very rare) form of color blindness that affects the ability to see green, yellow, and red colors.

The Color Blindness Simulator will allow you to do this with your own photos. Read the rest

The super history of supertasters

Last week, I posted a link to a story on the Atlantic, all about the history of research into supertasters — humans with the ability to taste a bitter compound called phenylthiocarbamide. It's a big part of why some people can't stand the taste of broccoli, and others love it. But that one piece isn't the full story. According to taste geneticist Stephen Wooding, it wasn't even totally accurate. Instead, he suggested three articles that anybody curious about supertasting should read. First, a history of the science that he wrote for the journal Genetics. Second, a long read by Cathryn Delude about research that might, someday, make broccoli delicious for everybody. And a University of Utah site that explains the genetics of taste. Read the rest

The two parts of pain

TIL: That what we think of as "pain" is actually two different things. The most basic sense is called nociception — a non-subjective reflex that drives lots of animals to pull away from dangerous things. Pain — actual pain — is what happens after nociception, and different individuals perceive it differently under different situations. So, for example, nociception is why you jerk your hand away from a hot stove. Pain is the feeling that helps you learn not to touch hot stoves again. Oh, and also, crabs might be capable of feeling both. Read the rest