Virtually Scrumptious: Multisensory Eating Experiences in VR

17 May 2017 | By Sign Salad
Food Gif

Think of ‘Virtual Reality’, and what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For most people, it’s probably something along the lines of Oculus Rift or PlayStation VR – dedicated hardware that (for a hefty price tag) will allow the user to engage in thrilling adventures on fantasy worlds, or bring new meaning to the concept of the First-Person Shooter. Exciting stuff, but not exactly practical – nor necessarily that ‘real’ when it comes down to it.

While gaming is certainly a big part of VR in 2017, it isn’t the only application. Facebook is making forays into the technology with its Spaces and 360 social media offerings; and as for cost, Google’s low-tech Cardboard smartphone adapter promises to enable users to “experience virtual reality in a simple, fun and affordable way”.

What can we experience through virtual reality, though? It might seem strange, but a number of researchers are looking at ways in which the technology can affect the way we eat. Based in the US, Kokiri Lab’s ‘Project Nourished’ bills itself as “a gastronomical virtual reality experience”, allowing users to “experience dining in a whole new way without caloric intake while maintaining taste, smell and touch”.

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The virtual reality experience is created through the interplay of all of a user’s senses. A VR headset offers visual input, affecting the appearance of the environment and food itself, while gyroscopic vessels and utensils enable the user to engage physically with the space around them. Hydrocolloid gel is 3-D printed to mimic the forms and textures of a variety of foods – from rice to apples and even steak. An aromatic diffuser is used to dissipate the smell of various menu items, while sound (whether through bone conduction tools or more conventional means) can affect the individual’s eating experience – from enhancing the experience of crunch, to the perception of smoothness or richness.

The result is, by all accounts, a remarkable simulation of real-world fine dining experiences. However, this is still a laboratory-bound experiment, inaccessible to all but those who visit the Project’s Los Angeles premises. Could there be other meeting points between food and VR?

The Okajima Lab, based at Yokohama University in Japan, might be able to offer some answers here. Established in 2004, the lab has conducted research into how visual impressions affect our perception of taste. For example, does a black coffee taste different if the appearance of milk is added through augmented or virtual reality? Experiments suggest that it does.

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These developments could have implications for all of us as they reach maturity, helping would-be dieters cut down on fats and sugars by altering the perception of flavour, or even helping to save species from extinction. Another experiment carried out by the Okajima lab projected the appearance of desirable (but endangered) fatty tuna onto more sustainably-sourced salmon; participants reported elevated satisfaction with the AR-enhanced food, suggesting real potential for the technology beyond mere novelty value.

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As uptake of VR and AR technology increases, it offers opportunities for brands to engage with consumers in newly meaningful and memorable ways. In the not-too-distant future, online retailers may be able to create virtual POP environments for consumers, while brands operating within the food space may be able to create more satisfying solutions for those with special dietary needs. Real-world activations like the Kit Kat Chocolatory (which allowed consumers to customise bars with ingredients from rose petals to gold leaf – pictured above) offer exciting and unexpected experiences; however, like ‘Project Nourished’, they are bound to specific geographical locations, and as such can only reach a lucky few. Time will tell if VR technology can enable brands to bring these multisensory experiences to a wider audience, from the comfort of their own homes…

– Emily Porter-Salmon, Semiotician and Project Director

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