The idea is to change humans, not the food itself.
How to sublimate a regular cookie with VR. Image: Screenshot from Food Hacking: Virtual Cookie, Munchies
When filmmaker Simon Klose first saw Takuji Narumi's olfactory VR headset, he was apprehensive. The contraption had six tubes poking out the sides, making it look a bit like a minimalist jester's hat.
"When you first see [the device] you're laughing and telling yourself, 'I would never use that weird thing, why would I do that?'" Klose told me. "But when I tried it on, and I saw a cookie transform into six different tastes, it was a real mind-fuck."
Klose—who speaks fluent Japanese and spent time in Tokyo as a student—was in Japan to investigate all the weird and wacky ways that tech has married food culture and added to both the experience of eating food, and the process of making it. He came across everything from electric forks that zap your tastebuds to change the flavor of foods, cookery with laser cutters to brain hacking with Narumi. The results will be shown in a six-part food-hacking series in collaboration with Munchies.
First up, Klose experienced Narumi's —an assistant professor at Tokyo University's Cyber Interface Lab—"Meta-Cookie" project.
Each of the six tubes are connected to small capsules lodged inside the VR headset. While the users hold a real cookie, the researchers use VR to overlay different virtual cookie images over the real thing, making it look either larger or smaller. Next up, they change the flavor of what you're eating by pumping a variety of strong smells from the tubes into your nose.
"The smell is being pumped into your nose, and it changes very fast so you see this generic cookie become a lemon cookie, then an strawberry one, and so on," said Klose. "I hadn't really understood how your brain is so easy to trick—how you can fool it by going through your nose and eyes. I thought my brain was smarter."
While this might all just seem like entertainment, Narumi actually has some more serious plans for the future. What if this thing could be used as a weight loss device that makes people think that the portions they're eating are larger than what's on their plate, or given to patients in hospitals to make eating hospital food a more pleasant experience?
Narumi's headset isn't commercial yet, and most of the hackers, food inventors, and makers that Klose met are at the early stages of re-imagining how people will cook, eat, and farm in the future.
The headsets might seem pretty far-out there at this stage, but Klose thinks that if they're streamlined to look like a pair of regular glasses in the future, what would stop people from using them.
"You could start changing people's behavior by using these inventions," said Klose. "It's this idea that by manipulating your sense of smell or your visuals, you can actually make a meal taste different. You're basically adjusting your tastebuds by fucking with your sight, smell, and ears in the future."
Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.