As human beings, we’ve always wanted to eat things that aren’t quite real.

Can a meal provide an experience beyond food? As foodie culture branches into theater and technology, companies are using new techniques to change the way people eat and bring a sense of immersion into dining.

VR gastronomy startup Project Nourished offers a virtual dining experience that replicates existing foods and invents new ones that would be impossible to create in physical reality. Users wear a VR headset that places them in an immersive environment and eat 3D-printed algae cubes, while aromatic diffusers and bone-conduction technology manipulate their senses to simulate the dining experience. We discussed the cultural implications of this technology with founder and CEO Jinsoo An.

How did Project Nourished get started?

It started merely as an experiment—we didn’t think of it as much, initially. We wanted to replicate what we saw in a movie called Hook that we saw growing up. There’s a scene where Peter Pan, as an adult, goes back to Neverland and uses his imagination to recreate food. We opened up our perspective to thinking, “What does it really mean to eat? Why do we create certain foods and aesthetics?”

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Project Nourished

We delved into that deeper and learned quite a bit on that journey. For example, when you look at why certain people like certain things, studies have shown that memories play a huge factor in what we create and what we prefer, but on top of that, the physical nature of our food ultimately dictates what we like and don’t like. We grow to prefer certain chemical compounds based on the effect they have on our bodies. With technologies like VR and augmented reality (AR), you can start to manipulate these forms, colors, and emotions. We’re starting to develop a new vocabulary around these forms, colors and aesthetics that hasn’t really been explored before.

As human beings, we’ve always wanted to eat things that aren’t quite real. From 16th-century Japan, we’ve created foods that are either fictional or based on stories, and people try to eat them as a way to bring the sense of immersion into food. Certain foods like wagashi, which is essentially made out of an algae, use hydrocolloid-based ingredients [hydrocolloids are widely used thickening and gelling agents]. This allows you to taste and reform the food however you want. It has the flexibility of Play-Doh and changing the temperature of the ingredients allows you to change the food into the shape of a bird or dragon.

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Project Nourished
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With the advent of bytes and human interface technologies, there’s a growing demand for food porn. These technologies are letting us do more of the things we’ve always wanted to do, based on the desires and cravings that we’ve always had. It’s quite exciting that we’re on the cusp of a big change. I call this phenomenon hypernormalization. We’re about to get to the level where we can mimic the whole aspect of foods—everything from the form to the motion and the colors. We’re also uncovering a lot of knowledge about the food system, because we don’t have a lot of control over the way it currently works.

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Your technology claims to simulate the dining experience, using bone conduction technology and edible 3-D printed cubes. To what extent do users report it feels like eating?

I think we’ve successfully demonstrated the technology. After two or three times, users are able to familiarize themselves with that environment. The way you eat in VR is quite different, since there are different laws at play, so you have to acclimatize. That acclimatization is something that we’re seeing them eventually getting used to. Initially, they think it’s weird and uncanny, but with use over time, those things eventually get mitigated. It’s like seeing a baby use a utensil for the first time, or eat for the first time. You see their reactions, which are quite surprised, since these things are quite alien to them. Eventually, they get accustomed to eating such food or expecting that behavior.

Since food is very important to many cultures, especially today with foodie culture on Instagram, does the lack of a physical “food” take something away from the dining experience?

If you think about the fundamentals of eating, they have a lot to do with culture and the social interaction that happens with food. In my opinion, although VR may lack in certain areas, it can fill in a lot more areas that physical reality cannot offer. Right now, there’s a growing culture of people demanding more stimulation, as a result of Facebook and smartphones. We are trying to help people to be more stimulated at a time when food is no longer interesting to people. There’s a fallback that’s currently happening with food where people are experiencing a very high engagement level with personal technology and are not engaged as much with eating.

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Project Nourished

What does VR offer in a dining experience that reality doesn’t?

One example that I can give you is motion. As we know, food is pretty much dead. The funny thing about it is things in nature are always in motion. The fact that we’re eating something that’s not in motion is unnatural—it’s more man-made. We are trying to bring motion back into human eating behavior, which can have a huge influence on the way we eat, besides the emotion and the nature and the way we interact with the world. That is the last vocabulary we have as human beings, and I’m hoping to bring it back as an attribute.

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Project Nourished

Does VR offer a social alternative and what are the implications of VR food to the social dining experience?

In Japan and parts of Asia, lots of people eat alone, so VR gives us a place to connect. People tend to see VR as an isolating place, but it only looks isolating to a person seeing another person using it. We’ve surveyed a lot of people and all of them would prefer to eat with somebody else. VR is going to help us connect in that virtual world through allowing you to “meet” your friends and people you might encounter on the web, instead of dining by yourself.

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You focus on hyper gastronomy, a “new state of food that allows dynamic and independent manipulation of shape, color, motion and perceived senses.” Where can this technology be used by consumers?

We can bring this technology into people’s houses and places where people gather. That can happen physically, so people can experience it together, or virtually, so they can experience it together in VR at home.

Are you noticing increased interest or work in this space?

Definitely. We’re seeing a lot of people having installations or pop-ups around this. We’re constantly educating and helping others, as well as paving our own space. The products that we’ll be releasing in the next few months are designed around helping these creators and giving them a toolkit. We’re designing an entire toolkit for anybody, including restaurant owners and whoever wants to create these experiences. We’re really excited about that, because it’s not easy to build these tools and we’ve spent a lot of time constructing them, so it’s going to tremendously reduce the amount of time to produce content and create experiences. We’re seeing other people look at this technology in the realm of fine dining.

For more on the future of dining, read our Food + Drink report.