Virtual reality: It's what's for dinner

The latest aspect of our lives to undergo a high-tech overhaul is the way we eat food.

Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
Erin Carson covered internet culture, online dating and the weird ways tech and science are changing your life.
Expertise Erin has been a tech reporter for almost 10 years. Her reporting has taken her from the Johnson Space Center to San Diego Comic-Con's famous Hall H. Credentials
  • She has a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.
Erin Carson
5 min read

When combined, Project Nourished's angular devices create a simulated eating experience.

Project Nourished

It might be the best meal you've never had.

A group of about 30 people in Los Angeles is experimenting with how we eat food, but not like Uber offering delivery or a bakery concocting a new donut-pastry combo. This time, you can put away the forks, knives, oven mitts and double mezzalunas.

It's called Project Nourished, and what's on your dinner table is a virtual reality headset, some devices that look like they came from a modern art museum, and something called "3D printed food."

The way it works: You put on the headset and you're transported to an interesting location, which is probably the most normal element of this exercise.

Also on the table are several other devices. One is an "aromatic diffuser," which has a tube sticking out of it that blasts food aromas at you. Another is a "bone conduction transducer" that wraps around the back of your head to mimic the sounds and vibrations of chewing. There's a cup for drinking. Finally, there's a utensil shaped like tweezers. For eating.

Put all those items together, and you could be eating sushi in Japan, or be having a simulated food experience totally foreign to this world.

In reality, you'd be wearing odd-shaped devices that make you look like someone glued pieces of a honeycomb-shaped ball on your head, all while you chew on a piece of algae.


Could this be the dinner table of the future?

Project Nourished

Bryce Hudson, an artist and designer, said the devices remind him of concept cars at auto shows: weird, yet beautiful.

"I'm in love with them. I'd have them as sculptures sitting in my home," he said.

Once you realize this is a real product trying to attract real customers, it's easy to dismiss as the latest example of tech going too far. The very idea seems laughable -- that we'd give up mom's cherry pie for a virtual reality simulation that tries to trick our brains into thinking we're eating the food we really want.

"There is no demand for an application like this, nobody will use it, and I'm shocked that it will attract any funding at all," said Michael Pachter, managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities.

Or maybe it's so weird it just might work.

Project Nourished founder Jinsoo An isn't concerning himself with critics just yet. "The perspective that we have currently may not offer us all the possibilities of what this could be used for," he said.


Project Nourished 3D prints food you might not be able to eat in the real world.

Project Nourished

Tech has a history of making things we want before we know we want them. You didn't realize you needed to carry your entire music collection in your pocket until you knew you could, right?

The promise of VR is grander than carrying around your tunes. When you put on a VR headset -- basically, goggles that strap a screen to your face -- your brain could be tricked into thinking you've been transported to any computer-generated world. You could be traveling through space, playing cops and robbers or talking to a cartoon crab. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, believes the technology could change the way we use computers. Period.

So it makes sense that VR could change the way we eat food, too.

Life as performance art

The initial inspiration for Project Nourished came from the 1991 movie "Hook." In the movie, there's a scene where Peter, played by Robin Williams, uses his imagination to turn a table of empty plates and bowls into a banquet with food both recognizable and fictitious.

An realized that with the right technology, he could help anyone have an entirely new experience of the basic human habit of eating. But beyond pursuing some foodie adventure or reliving the epic meal of the Lost Boys, An said technology like this one could address problems like food allergies, weight gain or even overconsumption.

Eating too much chocolate? Try Project Nourished.

If you're still not convinced, imagine astronauts and soldiers, who often have to eat packaged and freeze-dried food. Project Nourished could make meals more enjoyable.


Here's a computer rendering of Project Nourished's headset.

Project Nourished

But there's something else An hopes to tap into. "Humans are curious about the things they eat: They want to explore their palates, they want to explore and try new things," he said. Project Nourished could help us try anything we like, without actually trying it at all.

You could also "eat" food that doesn't quite exist. An said his team has endeavored to do exactly that, inventing scents like Spirits of Nordic Sea and Space Dust.

Another, called Phantasy Zone, was made from chemical compounds found in bubble gum, grass, banana, mango, watermelon and sweet pea flower. Imagine trying it while sitting in what An calls an "'80s pop art and seapunk" vista.

Playing with flavor isn't new. Scientists have been trying to get things to taste like other things for decades, and they're pretty good at it. Jelly Belly makes jelly beans with flavors ranging from buttered popcorn and toasted marshmallow to piña colada and tutti frutti, whatever that is. Otherwise bland yogurt comes in flavors like Boston cream pie or red velvet cake.

And it all works by creating a scent with chemicals, as the Project Nourished team hopes to do.

"Flavor is about 80 percent aroma and 20 percent taste," said Robert McGorrin, department head of Oregon State's Food Science and Technology department.

So, could Project Nourished help kick-start a new Willy Wonka-like magical food revolution? It will need to convince a lot of people.


Jelly Belly makes jelly beans that taste like many different foods.

David Paul Morris, Getty Images

"I love food too much for this," said Catherine Lefebvre, a nutritionist based in Montreal. Lefebvre relishes how food is grown, how it is produced and how it is transformed into a good meal. And she thinks there are better ways to cut calories.

"I don't think not eating has ever been -- nor ever will be -- a solution to fight obesity," she said.

Project Nourished is still working on its recipes, whose ingredients An said are "massaged" every day. The starter kit, available for preorder online for $59.84 and shipping this summer, is a "smell module." The devices that replicate the sensation of eating will follow in the latter part of 2016.