Rachel Jones

Virtual reality food is where the user can see, taste, feel, smell and hear themselves eating a food, but they are not actually eating. This is being developed by a number of independent laboratories and companies, but it is being led by Project Nourished.

Project Nourished is developing a range of products to be used together to give a virtual reality eating experience. The headset allows the user to see the 3D-printed food as the food that is being imitated and the environment in which the food is being enjoyed. A aromatic diffuser gives an appropriate scent to the food. A bone conduction transducer is similar to headphones, but the sound waves are transmitted through the skull in a way that allows the sound to be heard as if it was coming from the jaw.

It also includes a gyroscopic utensil, loosely resembling a spoon, that is necessary for the movements of the user to be translated to virtual reality. The virtual glass seems to have a similar function to the utensil; telling the headset to display the process of drinking, but may also inform the headset that the user is an alcoholic drink and cause a visual simulation of intoxication for those who cannot consume alcohol. A hydrocolloid-based 3D printed food is used to confer taste, texture and consistency, as it is emulsifiable and low caloric.

There are many theoretical applications for the Project Nourished experience, ranging between leisure to  therapeutic use. A lot of sales will be made by those who are looking for something to help with weight loss. Users will benefit from the system by allowing themselves to give into unhealthy cravings without consequence through the device. Project Nourished intends to simulate food that is being eaten but does not actually exist, in fictional places. Long distance relationships could be supported by the technology, as couples will be able to experience dining together from locations continents apart.

Good_Food_Display_-_NCI_Visuals_Online simple wikipedia

Image Credit: Simple Wikipedia

Many people cannot eat certain foods they love; people with allergies, diabetes, problems with chewing, swallowing and digestion, or even astronauts who miss foods that cannot be taken into space. Project Nourished aims to supplement their lifestyle with the experience of eating what they want to eat. In contrast to this, the devices may be used to acclimatise fussy eaters to acquired tastes, particularly in children who will not eat healthy foods. This approach could also be carefully taken in eating therapy for patients with eating disorders, weaning them onto the idea of eating and developing healthy eating habits without the stress of calorific consequences. Prader-Willi syndrome is a condition in which, among other symptoms, the patient does not receive a ‘full’ signal and will constantly eat as they feel as though they are starving. Project Nourished claims that their technology could be used by these people to combine eating with negative stimuli, associating eating with unpleasant memories.

What does science say about the effectiveness of these applications? Studies into mimicking food consumption without the calorific intake modelled with chewing gum generally conclude that chewing gum reduces appetite and results in decreased food consumption. One may question whether these findings would apply to virtual eating. Excessively controlled dieting is known to be less easily maintained and so diets fail more when they are too strict; maybe treating yourself with unhealthy foods, without metabolic consequence, will make dieting more successful.

There are apparently no dedicated Project Nourished team members advising on the psychological consequences of virtual eating. One would hope that the company bases suggestions of therapeutic applications on fact, and that suggestions of effective treatment of Prader-Willi syndrome, eating disorders and weight loss by this technology are backed up by reliable studies. A concern about the use of this technology is that users will replace too much of their diet with a replacement to food, aiding eating disorder development by enabling the users to live without food more easily.  

The use of the products to stimulate alcoholic intoxication is not expanded upon on the project’s website. If it is for use in treating alcoholics, its efficacy would be questionable, as it would not satisfy the chemical addiction involved in alcoholism unless alcohol is provided. If it is for use by people who wish to experience drunkenness without the damaging effects of alcohol consumption, whether they have a medical condition affected by alcohol or not, the simulation cannot mimic many aspects of drinking, such as the specific mood and behavioural changes, which are the main draw to drinking many people feel.

Many of the most interesting psychological and medical applications of virtual eating technology have yet to be seen as this is state-of-the-art technology, and will likely be studied extensively upon product release.  

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