A Cornell University study has shown that even VR environments can change our perception of taste.
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If you order up a lasagna while dining al fresco in Italy, it's probably going to seem to taste better than eating an identical lasagna on a plastic tray in a cafeteria, purely based on your surroundings alone. But what if those different surroundings aren’t real, but virtual? Can even prerecorded scenes pumped in through a virtual reality headset be enough to whisk your taste buds away? A study from Cornell University suggests that, yes, trying real food while immersed in a VR world can change our perception of taste.

Based on a study published in the Journal of Food Science earlier this year, Cornell News recently published a story stating that, indeed, “Virtual reality can alter taste.” A team of four researchers came to this conclusion after having about 50 panelists try three identical samples of blue cheese while viewing three very different “custom-recorded 360-degree videos”: a “standard sensory booth” (yes, it was a virtual one), a “pleasant park bench,” and the Cornell cow barn (yes, Cornell apparently has its own cow barn for you undecided students out there).

As expected, the researchers found that the panelists, who were unaware that the cheeses were all identical, rated the cheese as being significantly more pungent when viewing the barn video. As a control, the team also had panelists rate the saltiness of the cheese, and these numbers didn’t change significantly across the three VR environments.

Robin Dando, an associate professor of food science who served as the senior author of the paper, suggested that, while these findings might be fun and interesting, they also can have real-life ramifications for companies looking for less expensive types of food testing. “This research validates that virtual reality can be used, as it provides an immersive environment for testing,” he said. “Visually, virtual reality imparts qualities of the environment itself to the food being consumed—making this kind of testing cost-efficient.”

Of course, that’s great for food brands, but what about for those of us just eating blue cheese—or a lasagna—at home? Though Cornell didn’t specifically address any personal applications, Dando did state, “When we eat, we perceive not only just the taste and aroma of foods, we get sensory input from our surroundings—our eyes, ears, even our memories about surroundings.” Sounds like it couldn’t hurt to toss on your home movies from Italy during dinner time.