What if you could enjoy an entire four-course meal without worrying about calories? Or try foods from your favorite books and films, like snozzberries and fizzy lifting drinks? Jinsoo An, founder of Project Nourished, and his 11-person team are working to make it happen by bringing food into the realm of virtual and mixed reality.
Project Nourished’s most well-known project uses different tools to mimic all facets of eating in virtual reality. From an “aromatic diffuser” that releases the scents of different foods, to a “bone conduction transducer” that replicates the sounds of a moving jawbone, they’ve worked on different experiences that re-create eating sushi, steak, and apple tart. There’s even a 3D-printed food substance, made out of agar agar or hydrocolloid, that the user eats as part of the experience. Because these are both gelatinous substances, certain kinds of foods lend themselves better to virtual reality, such as fruits and soft foods that contain more moisture. Achieving the right consistency of the food is one of the biggest challenges An has faced, and he says they are still working on getting it right.
At the same time, An says that Project Nourished has decided to shift their focus away from replicating existing foods. “The main goal of this has to be about creating new things… so we decided to focus more on futuristic foods.” This means designing new flavors that do not yet exist, and adding new elements to existing foods. “Imagine food being able to move and react and change colors in ways that haven’t been done before.”
While the idea of virtual reality food might conjure up dystopian visions of Soylent Green, An sees a lot of positive applications for VR food. Among them are encouraging positive eating habits in children by allowing them to enjoy unpleasant foods in fun ways, providing exciting food for astronauts, and preserving the taste of foods that may go extinct or become unavailable. “There’s going to be a huge shift in terms of the perspective towards food,” he says, explaining how he envisions their work as simply one step in a timeline of how food—and the public’s relationship to food—evolves through time. He doesn’t think futuristic and virtual reality foods are going to replace regular food, but rather expand upon it. So it won’t be putting grocery stores out of business, but one day VR and MR food might take up one aisle of the store.
For the moment, a lot of An’s work is still in the idea stages, and being able to monetize their projects is a looming goal. “There’s so much more research that needs to be done,” says An, but he predicts a big turning point will be when VR headsets become household items, garnering more attention and excitement for VR and AR experiences. And he suspects things are going to develop quickly.
“People have the sense that this is 10 years away, but it actually isn’t. I think we’re actually a couple years away,” says An. “It will certainly bring some level of shock wave to the people.”