Imagine if we could eat whatever we want, whenever we please, and have no unwanted side effects. All the fancy sushi, rare cuts of steak, and decadent desserts our hearts desire — isn’t that splendid to envision? And what if doing so would not be cost-prohibitive or result in weight gain?
Welcome to the delightful deception of Project Nourished, which brings all that to life through virtual reality.
Jinsoo Ann is an experience designer, technologist, and researcher from Seoul currently residing in L.A. He studies how people interact by deconstructing human behavior, thought processes, and the culture of technology. He also speaks frequently about the future of food, and in 2014 he founded a gastronomical virtual-reality experience that allows users to fully believe they are eating things like sushi and steak when they’re actually chewing on a cube of algae. “Project Nourished reexamines modern methods of dietary consumption,” Jinsoo says. “By merging the physicality of molecular gastronomy with virtual reality, we can enjoy food in a whole new way.”
The implications for Project Nourished are many, including for allergies, weight loss, and the often high price of fancy food. “I was really inspired by a lot of my chef friends who provide food for the L.A. community,” Jinsoo has said. And with Project Nourished, “even though I have gluten and soy sensitivity, I can eat whatever I want without consequences.”
With Project Nourished, Jinsoo and his team provide a deceptive but fully pleasurable dining experience, interweaving users’ senses, memories, and emotions. The group has created simulations for several dishes, including steak, sushi, and pie. “For as long as [humans have] cooked food, the fundamental role of a meal hasn’t really changed,” Jinsoo says. “A meal is sustaining, but it is also an art, artifice, an act of memory, imagination, and emotional experience. Why can’t a meal provide a more pleasurable experience beyond simple sustenance?”
Every aspect of Project Nourished is designed to create a fully immersive eating experience, from visuals to sound, sight, and, of course, taste. The equipment includes a virtual-reality headset for imparting visuals, an aromatic diffuser for producing smells, a bone-conduction transducer for creating chewing sounds and vibrations, a gyroscopic utensil for manipulating both virtual and physical food, a 3-D-printed cube made of algae for taste and texture, and a virtual cocktail glass that mimics the effects of alcohol on one’s central nervous system and motor function.
With Project Nourished, Jinsoo invites users to think about food as a medium for much more than mere sustenance. “Food has to serve a greater role rather than just being edible,” Jinsoo says. His hope is that diners will be thrilled to “deceive” their own taste buds in order to have such a unique, immersive eating experience. “In the context of psychology, deception is a part of normal human cognition [which] requires us to think abstractly [and] voluntarily shut down our perception of the ‘true’ reality. People often describe such experience as ‘immersive,’ though you don’t necessarily need to have virtual reality to feel immersion.”
For Project Nourished’s trickery, the visual element of the experience tends to be the most important component, as Jinsoo has found that most people transmit and process visual information more than that from other senses. This is a fine line, however, as “the brain will usually pick up any information that doesn’t sync with other senses,” Jinsoo says, citing what people refer to as the “uncanny valley.” “It’s an unfortunate side effect of VR at the moment,” Jinsoo says, “but the technology is improving quite steadily. As people spend more time in virtual reality, they will get used to it. It’s like riding on a boat: Once you [do it] frequently and regularly, your body naturally adapts to the condition.”