Noah J Nelson on Friday, Jan. 29th
You’re probably tired by now hearing about how virtual reality is the next big thing for movies and games. But here’s one you haven’t heard yet: that virtual reality could be the next big thing for culinary experiences. Before getting into that, let’s get a little backstory.
Here’s the thing: I’ve got a problem, a fraught relationship with food. None more so than donuts.
In the interests of journalism I recently visited Sidecar Doughnuts, one of the best donut places on Earth, which had just opened up a branch in Santa Monica a few miles—thankfully—from NPR West.
This place is magical, with some study standards like the Butter & Salt that anchor a seasonal rotation of wonders like the Pumpkin Fool— a raised donut with pumpkin glaze, pumpkin custard, crème fraiche and a pumpkin spice streusel topping.
Uh, oh. Now I’m hungry. This report is already a disaster.
“Why is it that the good things are always bad for us?”
This sage question comes from designer Jinsoo An, and he might just have an unconventional solution to my donut problem.
“Maybe with virtual reality that doesn’t need to be the case?” asks An.
An has built a virtual reality eating experience that aims to let people eat whatever they want without the downside: be that because of a food allergy or just unwanted calories. He calls it Project: Nourished. To find out what it’s all about I visited his studio in Downtown Los Angeles.
“So we’re in the kitchen and we were actually making some sushi last night. I can show you some.”
He showed me a couple of semi-translucent cubes that have been molded to look like rice. They’re made out of agar agar—a vegan substitute for gelatin. Fun fact: agar agar is used both in Japanese deserts and by microbiologists in lab experiments. Which is what I was about to become.
“You’re actually one of the first ones to try this,” An told me as I sat down for my virtual meal. “You might be the first person outside of our team to try this.”
Before pulling the Oculus Rift goggles over my head I confessed to An that my guinea pig status made me giddy. Then it was time to chow down…virtually.
“Hello,” said the most soothing computer voice imaginable.
“Welcome to Project Nourished. Momentarily I will guide you through the culinary experience of a lifetime.”
Inside the goggles I saw a little table overlooking a zen garden. On the table is a plate with a tiny cube of sushi rice that looks like the one An showed me back in the real world. And then I actually smelled sushi.
That was thanks to the blast of an atomizer, a device usually used to mist medicine, but repurposed here to create that archetypal sushi restaurant smell. Finally, it was time to take a bite.
It tasted like fish.
Of course, it’s all an illusion. One put together with the help of restaurateur Nguyen Tran.
“We found that the two defining flavors of sushi— at least for the American palate— is Ginger and wasabi,” said Tran. “And the minute we put those in there and layered on top of just the simple flavor of dashi, rice and seaweed it was exactly like sushi for us.
As it stands it’s not exactly like eating sushi. The flavor is there, and at least at first, so is the texture. But past the first bite, the agar agar started crumbling into a sandy mush.
Right now Project: Nourished requires a touch of suspension of disbelief, but designer An sees it as an evolving “open canvas” for experimentation.
“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.”
So maybe one day we could pack all the nutrition I need into a virtual, guilt-free Pumpkin Fool donut. Until then, I guess you know where you can find me.