You’ve probably got some sort of eating habit that you wish you could break—we all do. Whether it’s an insatiable love for sweets or too much salt on your fries, the effects can be physically and psychologically hard to break. But what if there was a way to enjoy these same foods without ingesting them? You’d derive the same pleasure—the taste and sensation—without the side effects.
Well, it’s now a possibility thanks to virtual reality.
Fooling the Tastebuds
So, how does this work? The basic idea is that the same senses stimulated while eating food are replicated using technology. Researchers at the National University of Singapore, lead by Niesha Ranasinghe, developed a synthesizer that produces the four major taste components. Translated into signals, they’re transmitted through a silver electrode that touches the tip of your tongue. “We have found noninvasive electrical and thermal stimulation of the tip of the tongue successfully generates the primary taste sensations,” Ranasinghe explained to New Scientist. Essentially, they fool our taste receptors into thinking that there is actually food in your mouth. But to do this, it’s more than just delivering a flavor. Temperature matters in making the experience seem real. Heat represents spicy food while cool indicates a mint-like taste.
In addition to flavor, a VR headset or computer screen is used in the faux-eating process. That way, you can see what you’re putting into your mouth. We eat with our eyes, after all—if something looks appetizing, it can make the food taste even better. And it’ll be like you’re really chewing it, too. At the University of Tokyo, they simulate food texture by attaching an electrode on your jaw muscle to mimic the act of chewing.
Going Beyond the Lab
Project Nourished calls themselves “a gastronomical virtual reality experience” that wants people to eat whatever they want, without a downside. Like the research labs, they too use VR goggles to simulate an environment. The spectacles isolate you from the real world and transport you into Project Nourished’s digital dining room. They set the mood and enliven the senses with the smell of food—an atomizer mists scents of what you’ll be “served.” But instead of electrodes that stimulate your jaw, you actually take a bite of something. Reporter Noah Nelson tried the experience and ate sushi. What he was actually eating was agar-agar, a vegan substitute for gelatin. For him, the illusion worked—at first. After a few bites, the agar-agar became a “sandy mush” and didn’t mimic sushi anymore.
Despite the kinks that need to be worked out, Project Nourish sees their platform as an “open canvas.” Designer Jinsoo An told Nelson, “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.”
Would You Eat in VR?
There are a few potential benefits to eating in VR. For those who are trying to reduce calories but still want to enjoy food, it’s a way to cut back without gain pounds. And if someone suffers from allergies (like shellfish) but still wants to eat shrimp, this will allow them to savor these meals without putting their bodies in danger.
Learn more about this new technology here: