We Sampled the Gastronomic Frontier of Virtual Reality

We Sampled the Gastronomic Frontier of Virtual Reality
flickr/Mladen Hanzek
We Sampled the Gastronomic Frontier of Virtual Reality
flickr/Mladen Hanzek

We Sampled the Gastronomic Frontier of Virtual Reality

By now, you’re probably tired of hearing about how virtual reality is the next big thing for movies and games. But here’s one you may not have heard yet: that virtual reality could be the next big thing for culinary experiences.

Potentially, the technology could help us consume our favorite tastes while avoiding unwanted side effects – whether food allergens or just extra calories. As someone who has long had a fraught relationship with the rotation of wonders at my local doughnut shop (think seasonal confections like Pumpkin Fool), the idea holds an undeniable appeal.

“Why is it that the good things are always bad for us?” commiserates designer Jinsoo An. He just might have an unconventional solution to my doughnut problem. “Maybe with virtual reality, that doesn’t need to be the case,” he says.

An is the brains behind Project Nourished, a virtual reality eating experience that aims to let people consume whatever they want, without the downside.

The idea is to use a variety of methods to trick your mind and palate into thinking you’re eating something different than what’s actually in your mouth. To find out what it’s all about, I visited An’s studio in downtown Los Angeles.

Project Nourished's virtual eating gizmos. From left: An atomizer that releases the scents of a food; a virtual reality headset; a a device that mimics the chewing sounds transmitted from a diner's mouth to their ear drums; a cocktail glass with built-in sensors; a utensil that picks up on the diner's movements and integrates them into the virtual reality experience; and a 3-D printed food cube. (Courtesy of Project Nourished)

“We were actually making some sushi last night,” he tells me as we tour the studio’s kitchen. “I can show you some.”

The “sushi” turns out to be a couple of semi-translucent cubes that have been molded to look like rice. They’re made out of agar-agar — a vegan substitute for gelatin. Fun fact: Agar-agar is used both in Japanese deserts and by microbiologists in lab experiments. Which is what I was about to become.

“You’re actually one of the first ones to try this,” An tells me as I sit down for my virtual meal. “You might be the first person outside of our team to try this.”

Before pulling on the Oculus Rift goggles – a head-mounted display which shows me a visually simulated environment, including the looks of my food – I confess to An that my guinea pig status makes me giddy. Then it is time to chow down — virtually.

Designer Jinsoo An of Kokiri Lab is the mastermind behind Project Nourished, a virtual reality eating experience. Around 30 engineers, food scientists, chefs and designers have worked with An on the project. (Courtesy of Noah Nelson/Youth Radio)

“Hello,” says the most soothing computer voice imaginable. “Welcome to Project Nourished. Momentarily, I will guide you through the culinary experience of a lifetime.”

Inside the goggles I see a little table overlooking a Zen garden. On the table is a plate with a tiny cube of sushi rice that looks like the one An showed me back in the real world. And then, I actually smell sushi.

That smell is thanks to the blast of an atomizer, a device usually used to mist medicine. Here, it’s repurposed to create a smell redolent of sushi restaurant. Finally, it is time to take a bite.

It tastes like fish.

Of course, it’s all an illusion — one put together with the help of restaurateur Nguyen Tran.

“We found that the two defining flavors of sushi— at least for the American palate — [are] ginger and wasabi,” Tran says. “And the minute we put those in there and layered on top of just the simple flavor of dashi, rice and seaweed, it was exactly like sushi for us.”

Well, not exactly like eating sushi. The flavor is there, and at least at first, so is the texture. But past the first bite, the agar-agar starts crumbling into a sandy mush.

The Pumpkin Fool from Santa Monica, California's Sidecar Doughnuts & Coffee is a ring of delicious evil, and reporter Noah Nelson's personal downfall. If only its gastronomic virtues could be bundled into a virtual, guilt-free version. (Courtesy of Noah Nelson/Youth Radio)

Right now, Project Nourished requires a touch of suspension of disbelief. But designer An sees it as an evolving “open canvas” for experimentation.

“Which means we can insert nutrients and take away nutrients. You can change the behavior of the food however you want — that’s what’s so magical about this. It turns food into a piece of code,” An says.

So maybe one day we could pack all the nutrition I need into a virtual, guilt-free Pumpkin Fool donut. Until then, I guess you know where you can find me.

Noah Nelson is a reporter for Turnstyle News — tech and culture coverage from Youth Radio.

— via NPR