Hacking food with virtual reality changes how you eat

A new series from Vice kicks off by visiting a Japanese scientist who hacks our perceptions to mess with our rates of food consumption and perception of flavors.

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
3 min read

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Host Simon Klose getting his mind -- and senses -- blown by a cookie. Video screenshot by Michael Franco/CNET

You might already know that the way your food looks and smells can affect the way it tastes, but you might not have realized to what degree you, your hunger and your tastebuds can actually be tricked. In the first episode of a new series on Vice's food channel "Munchies" called "Food Hacking," Swedish host Simon Klose visits Japanese scientist and professor Takuji Narumi, who's using technology to change the appearance of food to see what it does to the way we eat.

"Food hacking means brain hacking to me," Narumi says. "How do we create new eating experiences by manipulating the senses in our brains? To make food taste different by changing humans instead of food, that's the most interesting to me."

Previously, Narumi had shown that changing the color of a drink -- even multiple times while you are holding it -- could affect its perceived flavor.

In this inaugural episode of "Food Hacking" Klose dons a pair of special virtual-reality goggles while holding an actual cookie. Through the goggles, the researchers are first able to make that cookie bigger or smaller. Doing so, Narumi says, has shown that food that is virtually enlarged to be 50 percent bigger leads to 10 percent less consumption, while food that is virtually shrunk to 30 percent its size makes people eat 15 percent more.

Narumi then goes on to demonstrate the well-known Delboeuf illusion when applied to food -- the idea that the same amount of food seems like more on a small plate than a large plate. Narumi's twist on this is a table that's also a display that can change the size of the virtual plate depending on the food you're eating. This helps you avoid getting used to any one plate size and keeps the illusion working for you.

The most impressive demonstration of all in the short film comes around the 10-minute mark when Klose dons an even more complicated headset that can change the look of the cookie he's holding while also pumping a corresponding fragrance to his nose. A plain cookie suddenly becomes a much sweeter lemon cookie in the experiment, showing that perhaps someday, a similar gadget could allow us to eat boring healthy food like celery sticks and have them taste like something much more sumptuous. Narumi says a gadget based on his prototype could also be used to make smells and tastes from a TV show come alive, or to make hospital food taste better.

"When we displayed this at a computer graphics conference in the US, Narumi says, "NASA approached us and said that they really wanted to try this. So in the future, this could also be used for space food."

The first "Food Hacking" video also features references to the film "Soylent Green" as well as a scene in which a brain cake inspired by the Licker monster in video game "Resident Evil" is served. But we'll let you find those on your own.

"Food Hacking" will continue with new episodes released each month on Munchies. Future episodes will include these topics: an electric fork capable of making food taste more bitter or saltier; an industrial laser cutter used to cut the fat of bacon; and cooking software that maps out which ingredients go well -- and not so well -- together.