ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Virtual reality is pitched as an experience that will revolutionize movies and video games. And there are scientists who think it can revolutionize the way we eat, too. Turnstile News reporter Noah Nelson became a guinea pig for a virtual reality eating lab in Los Angeles.
NOAH NELSON, BYLINE: I've got a problem - a fraught relationship with food, none more so than doughnuts. This is Sidecar Doughnuts, one of the best doughnut places on Earth. In the interest of journalism, I recently visited their newly opened Santa Monica branch a few miles, thankfully, from NPR West.
Let me get a Pumpkin Fool because seasonal, of course, and a Butter and Salt, as well. Are the Cinnamon Crumbs seasonal or are they - they're regular? OK, then I can avoid them for the moment.
Not that I want to avoid them, and that's the problem.
JINSOO AN: Why is it that the good things are always bad for us?
NELSON: This is designer Jinsoo An, and he might just have a solution to my problem.
AN: Maybe with virtual reality that doesn't need to be the case.
NELSON: An's virtual reality eating experience aims to let people eat whatever they want without the downside, be that because of unwanted calories, food allergies or another medical condition. He calls it Project Nourished. To find out what it's all about, I visited his studio in downtown Los Angeles.
AN: So we're in the kitchen, and we were actually making some sushi last night.
NELSON: He shows me a couple of semi-translucent cubes that have been molded to look like rice. They're made out of fish-flavored agar-agar, a vegan substitute for gelatin.
AN: You're actually one of the first ones to try this.
NELSON: You have no idea how giddy that makes me.
I pull the Oculus Rift goggles over my head and dig in, virtually.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello. Momentarily, I will guide you through a culinary experience of a lifetime.
NELSON: Inside the goggles, I see a little table overlooking a Zen garden, and there's a plate with a tiny cube of sushi rice. And then I actually smell sushi.
(SOUNDBITE OF ATOMIZER)
NELSON: That really loud sound right there is an atomizer, usually used to mist medicine, but repurposed here to create that archetypal sushi restaurant smell. Using a pair of motion-tracking chopsticks, I pick up the fake rice cube in the VR and real world and miss my mouth a couple of times before taking a bite.
The smell and the flavor - like, I'm definitely tasting fish - like, totally tasting fish.
There's just a hint of fish broth, but the sense was of being whacked in the mouth with fish. That illusion was put together with the help of restaurateur Nguyen Tran.
NGUYEN TRAN: We found that the, like, defining flavors of sushi, at least for the American palate, is ginger and wasabi. And the minute we put those in there and it layered it on top of just a simple later of dashi, rice and seaweed, it was exactly like sushi for us.
NELSON: Right now, Project Nourished requires a touch of suspension of disbelief. But designer An sees it as an evolving open canvas for experimentation.
AN: Which means that 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.
NELSON: So maybe one day we could pack all the nutrition I need into a virtual, guilt-free Pumpkin Fool doughnut. For NPR News, I'm Noah Nelson.
SIEGEL: That story was produced by Turnstyle News, a project of Youth Radio.
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