Virtual Eating — How VR can transform how we eat, drink, and think about food
For many years Virtual Reality (VR) belonged strictly in the future. We would read about the technology in books, discover its potential in futuristic movies, and marvel at scientific articles about its possible applications. This all changed in the past few years, as Oculus VR developed its VR headset and released it in March 2016. Ever since the technology has slowly entered our everyday lives and we can now use it for games, educational purposes, or even for medical purposes such as PTSD therapy. As the technology is mostly based on creating visuals, in the past few years people have wondered if it can be adopted in the food and drink industry, one where senses such as taste, smell, and touch are of crucial importance. As it turns out, it is possible and these companies are leading the way of innovation.
One of the most interesting applications of VR for the food and drink industry is the creation of culinary experiences, currently championed by Project Nourished. By using advanced technology, the LA-based company is able to recreate the experience of eating by hacking vision, gustation, olfaction, audition and touch thus tricking people’s senses into believing that the “faux” food they’re eating is a gourmet meal. It works by incorporating an aromatic diffuser, VR headset, a bone conduction transducer (the device which mimics the chewing sounds that are transmitted from the diner’s mouth to the ear drums via soft tissues and bones), a gyroscopic utensil, and 3D printed, tasteless food. Essentially, diners will be able to enjoy any meal they wish in any location they desire, such as sushi in Japan or a steak in Argentina.
By merging the physicality of molecular gastronomy with virtual reality, Project Nourished allows diners to enjoy any kind of food they desire in a whole new way. As the “faux” food can be made without calories, allergens, or particular ingredients, the experience does not require any concern for calorie intake or health-related issues or requirements. Consequently, the technology has many interesting applications, ranging from weight loss, eating therapy, allergic and diabetic management, kids eating habituation, as well as alternative reality dining and virtual food tourism. It even can be used as alternative food for astronauts which would allow them to enjoy different foods whilst travelling through space without the need for any food preparation or cooking to take place.
Another company that is working on developing culinary experiences via VR is Perception Fixe, branded as the first VR food blog. Traditional users will be able to interact with the food through a 3D model and those with a VR headset will be able to enjoy a much more immersive experience. The company hopes that its technology will be able to transport people to remote restaurants that are booked out for the next few month or to learn how to cook a dish from a first-hand perspective. In doing so, Perception Fixe is currently focusing just on the visual images and not on other senses, such as taste or smell.
A different approach is adopted by a research project led by researchers from Japan and the University of Singapore, who have been testing how electrical and thermal probes can be used to simulate actual taste and trick the brain into thinking that it is tasting food that isn’t really there. The scientists experimented with stimulating neurons that are responsive to temperature to verify how it influences people’s tastes. For some people heating up and then rapidly cooling the tip of their tongue produced a sweet taste, whereas for others it produced a spicy or minty taste. The scientists also experimented with electrical currents to create a salty, sour, or bitter taste in someone’s mouth. As the technology is perfected and the researchers will be able to recreate a combination of tastes reflecting the composition of a particular dish, when combined with VR imagery it will create an incredible virtual experience.
Another application of VR in the food and drinks industry is marketing as it offers a unique way for companies to engage and connect with their customers. Rather than just feeding visuals to the customers to promote their products, companies can design virtual experiences and put across the values they represent and thus convey the brand message more effectively and convincingly.
Patron is one of the companies that decided to adopt this approach and created a virtual reality experience, which conveys the manufacturing process of their tequila from the perspective of a bee — from pollination of the cactus to the final stages of production. By developing such an immersive and novel experience, Patron is able to build trust and genuine interest in its products. A virtual reality experience leaves a lasting impression on its customers and allows the company to connect with them more effectively than by using traditional marketing tools and techniques.
Another example is a VR campaign designed by Wolf in Motion for Glenfiddich. As described by an article published on The Drum, “The VR experience will see users transported to Glenfiddich’s Warehouse 8 in Dufftown, Scotland, where they are surrounded by casks and stand in front of three Solera Vats. Users will be able to select a vat and enter the world of that expression, where they can write their own tasting notes in the air, with the brushes they write with creating a ribbon effect that matches the colours and aesthetic.” This tailor-made experience allows Glenfiddich to connect with its customers in a unique way and give them a way to express their feelings and impressions about the whiskey in a new way.
Whereas the VR solutions for the food and drink industry are mostly still in the development phase, Augmented Reality (AR) ones have already been introduced to our plates. As its name suggests, in contrast to VR AR does not alter the reality but adds an extra, computer-generated layer to what already exists, such as sounds, imagery, or GPS data (just like the Pokemon app). Although AR cannot be used as extensively as VR to create immersive experiences, it can be used for restaurant and bar marketing in order to enhance customer experience.
A notable example is Kabaq, an app which allows users to see virtual 3D food on their table in-restaurant when ordering their food. In addition to the imagery the app also incorporates information about the portion size, ingredients, and calories, ensuring customer satisfaction. The company adds that the app also provides an “exceptional up-sell opportunity by showing main dishes served along with drinks, side dishes and dessert combinations”, encouraging the restaurant and bar clients to complete their order. A similar technology is used in London’s City Social (a cocktail bar by restaurateur Jason Atherton); guests order a drink, scan the barcode on their glow-in-the-dark coaster, and wait a few seconds to see animated creatures jump out from behind a virtual glass or paintings to appear in the background.
The AR technology has also been adopted by websites such as Yelp or TimeOut, which uses a combination of the smartphone’s camera, geolocation, and compass to convey information to its users. For instance, the TimeOut Bar Guide compiles data about bars with drink specials and presents them on a map, helping customers to plan their evenings.
As most VR solutions for the food and drink industry are still under development we cannot predict to what extent it will alter how people consume and interact with food and drinks. In their present form, the technologies offer a lot of promise for the industry in the form of futuristic solutions which will change how people interact with food. However, we will probably have to wait some time to see where VR will truly take us.