Takuji Narumi is using strong odors and digital VR overlays to prove your brain isn’t as clever as you think.
Filmmaker and food enthusiast Simon Klose has seen some strange things in his travels. The Swedish-born director is a regular contributor to Vice’s food website subsidiary, MUNCHIES, and as a result has experienced some of the weirdest combinations of tech and cuisine. This includes everything from electric forks that zap your tastebuds, to laser-cut meat dishes based off of popular manga publications. However, it’s Takuji Narumi’s “virtual cookie” project that truly caught the attention of the seasoned documentarian whilst on a trip to Japan.
An assistant professor at Tokyo University’s Cyber Interface Lab, Narumi’s “Meta-Cookie” project utilizes a combination of powerful scents and virtual reality technology to “change” the taste and size of a normal cookie. The prototype headset, which looks like an accessory that’d be worn by a Batman villain, features six plastic tubes connected to tiny capsules inside the headset. These capsules pump a variety of scents through the tubes directly to the subject as they eat a standard cookie, tricking the taste buds into thinking they’re experiencing different flavors. For instance, injecting scents such as strawberry or vanilla could subconsciously convince the brain that the standard cookie currently being eaten actually contains said flavors.
An augmented reality overlay also tracks the physical cookie and replaces it with other cookie images of various sizes. The technology is capable of altering the size of the pastry, shrinking or growing the digital rendition in real-time. The result is an experience that can genuinely replicate a collection of flavors or portions without actually changing the food.
“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.”
“When you first see [the device] you’re laughing and telling yourself, ‘I would never use that weird thing, why would I do that?’ But when I tried it on, and I saw a cookie transform into six different tastes, it was a real mind-f***.”
As ridiculous as the current design appears, Narumi believes that the devices practicality is anything but. The developer teased several potential use-case scenarios, such as using the size-altering functionality to assist in portion control. Those suffering from anorexia could be persuaded to eat more by digitally shrinking the size of the food, tricking them into believing they’re eating less. The scent-based technology could also help enhance the flavor of otherwise bland food from locations such as hospitals or homeless shelters.
Klose believes that if the headset can be streamlined to a more comfortable and realistic design the technology could end up being an extremely popular tool capable of influencing individuals on a deep level.
“You could start changing people’s behavior by using these inventions,” said Klose in an interview with Vice’s Motherboard multimedia publication. “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 taste buds by f***ing with your sight, smell, and ears in the future.”