“By merging molecular gastronomy with virtual reality, we can finally enjoy any food we want in a whole new way.”
Founded in 2014 by Jinsoo An, Kokiri Lab describes itself as a “playground and think tank” for researching and developing new wearables technology that “improve the human condition.” One of the lab’s most striking creations is Project Nourished, an ambitious virtual reality experiment that aims to simulate the experience of eating.
More than most VR experiences, Project Nourished evokes thoughts of Star Trek’s Holosuites, creating a fully immersive environment where the user not only interacts with the illusion, but can feel, smell and even consume it. Yet it was a different work of fiction that inspired Jinsoo and his team: Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991). In Hook, the Lost Boys’ imaginary dinner and food fight is an iconic scene created to capture the limitless freedom of childhood and make-believe – and it inspired one future inventor to make this limitless make-believe a reality.
In order to re-create the experience of eating, Jinsoo’s team need to go beyond VR headsets to convince all five sense. Aromatic diffusers produce food-like smells using ultrasonic and heat, whilst low-calorie, 3D-printed ‘food’ made from algae takes on the challenge of re-creating texture, consistency and flavour.
Simulating these senses is no easy task. Eating is a primal, essential part of our existence, and though our menus have gone through millennia of development since early primates hunted and foraged, the physical act of eating has, of course, barely changed. We have a sensitive ‘ick’ reflex when it comes to unfamiliar food – it’s a survival instinct, and in the same way that we have an astute sense for when a face isn’t quite right, a half-convincing food simulation would risk giving users an unsettling ‘uncanny valley’ reaction. Jinsoo An and his team have their work cut out for them – but the greater the challenge, the greater the sense of magic when it is achieved.
The real question is, why would anyone want simulated food? The idea seems forget the reason we eat – to eat! In fact, the project’s creators have many applications in mind, and some of them are ingenious.
One of the main motives is to use the technology in hospitals, as escapism for patients with illnesses or conditions that affect their eating, and to assist therapy for people with eating disorders. On an individual level, the technology would allow long-distance diners to share a meal together despite being apart, and the creators believe the technology could also encourage healthy diets by providing a consequence-free way to indulge in unhealthy foods.
Of course, the inspiration for the project suggests another use, and for Jinsoo, this is where the real fun is: fantasy meals, allowing users to eat completely imagined, non-existent foods. What would people eat in the future, or on another planet? Kikiri Lab’s food technicians are working obsessively to not only recreate recognisable foods, but to invent whole new flavours and tastes.
The example footage for Project Nourished is currently, like many VR experiments, fairly basic, especially compared to film and video game CGI. However, this high-spec visual technology exists, whereas the sensation of eating is exciting new territory to be conquered. Once Jinsoo’s team have mastered these challenges, it seems natural that advanced visual technology will join them, leaving no limit to the fictional gastronomic horizons they could travel to.