Augmenting the reality of our food
While many of us wrestle with the crucial question, “to eat or not to eat”, a lot of labs and companies are experimenting with virtual reality food. But what on earth is it? And does it involve real eating at all? Read More
Food, eating and overall nutrition are important topics in this day and age. The obesity epidemic, eating disorders, malnutrition, food intolerances, diets, healthy lifestyles – food rules our lives in so many different ways. And far from the constant stream of food porn social media delivers daily, an entire industry has developed that is exploring virtual food on a variety of levels.
We took a closer look at a few novel approaches. Eating may never be the same again. My expedition into the world of VR food started innocently enough.
The virtual menu
I found a company called KabaQ that creates digital food to augment restaurant menus. The concept is simple: by scanning the QR code of a menu item that sounds good to me, I can call up a 3D version of it on my tablet or smartphone. This can make it easier to choose what I am really in the mood for (or inspire me to order a few dishes if they all look amazing…)
This is clearly a digital improvement on the plastic foods or pictures that some restaurants display in their windows.
VR gear in restaurants
We humans are driven to take things to the next level and strive to outdo each other. The world of virtual reality is no different. Imagine for a moment you’re sitting at perfectly normal table in a perfectly normal restaurant, and suddenly you're in a tropical garden or under water, surrounded by colourful schools of fish. What sounds impossible is really just the next big thing in dining.
Enter Sublimotion from Ibiza. Chef Paco Romero has created a dining experience to tantalize all the five senses, complete with video walls and images projected onto the table that whisk diners away to different locations. Diners can even choose the virtual reality option for a total immersion experience. The Sublimotion team has created a room that makes your dinner a 3D event you'll never forget.
What's next for the world of digital dining?
The Cyber Interface Lab at the University of Tokyo has been exploring both how we perceive our food and how satisfied our food makes us feel.
The Meta Cookie project uses a fancy VR headset to alter the eater’s experience. Below you can see that the cookie has been branded with a logo, similar to the QR codes off KabaQ's menu, so the headset can recognise and project the appearance of one of five types of cookies onto it.
The tubes release a scent that adds the flavour of your choice in puffs of air. Since smell comprises 80% of taste – something you can easily test the next time a cold has your nose stuffed up - adding different scents can completely change how we experience taste.
In their Augmented Satiety project, the Cyber Interface Lab is helping diners control portion size by using augmented reality to alter the sizes of food, plates and cups. A similar technique involving a less crazy-looking headset can track the food in front of a diner and make it look larger or smaller. A sugary, high calorie cookie could be made larger, for example, while a piece of fruit or veg would be made smaller, helping you eat fewer cookies and more fruit and veg.
If you don’t read Japanese, it’s a bit tricky to gain deeper insight into the thinking behind this kind of research. Project Nourished demonstrates how 3D printed food might help us and how the technology will evolve.
Project Nourished simplifies the headset, and adds a tabletop diffuser to produce scents, a bone conduction transducer to trick your ears, and a smart fork and glass for additional eating feedback while you enjoy your 3D printed food.
3D printed food is well worth a closer look, though your initial reaction might be to wonder if it is not just way too weird. According to Project Nourished, 3D printed food uses a hydrocolloid base.
What that means I’m sure I don’t know. My general rule of thumb is to only eat something if I know what it is, and the fewer ingredients, the better. In terms of ingredients, hydrocolloid is simple and consists of just xanthan gum, gelatine and flavouring agents. Xanthan gum is used as a thickening agent and generally regarded as safe, though consuming more than 15g a day can have a laxative effect. So, if we eat a little bit and use Augmented Satiety to make us think we’re having more, the flavour and smell enhancers should make us happy diners.
MIT’s Cornucopia project explains how food can be made using 3D printing. Pictured below, the Digital Fabricator is outfitted with a number of food canisters installed on the top. These ingredients are deposited in layers onto the bottom of the oven, and then baked to perfection. The promise is that food can be custom-tailored to the user and controlled with far more precision than our standard cooking practices of today.
As to why you would want to do dine in virtual or augmented reality, Project Nourished provides some very good reasons that might make the trouble of wearing a bulky headset worthwhile. It can:
• Promote healthy eating habits for weight control or restricted diets for conditions like diabetes
• Help people to overcome eating disorders
• Provide a better dining experience for picky eaters or astronauts eating in space
• Aid the elderly with physical ailments, like trouble swallowing
• Enable dining with a loved one who is far away
For me, the possibilities seem interesting and perhaps overwhelming. Call me old fashioned but I’m opting out of being an early adopter on this one. What about you?
Call me old fashioned but I’m opting out of being an early adopter on this one. What about you?