As our devices become faster, smarter, and more mobile, and our attention spans require ever more stimulation, augmented and virtual reality are becoming more and more commonplace. Our lives, so completely filtered through the lens of a smartphone, leave us eager for a reality we can amplify and mold. We’re seeing this in the ways we navigate our days, in our entertainment, and now even in the way we eat and drink. Though this movement is still in its early days, avid innovators are working hard to spin new and immersive experiences for patrons who are hungry for something special and fascinating to amplify the food on their plate or the drink in their glass.
In search of the elusive “psycho-taste”
An early pioneer in immersive dining is the famed Shanghai restaurant Ultraviolet. Chef Paul Pairet began work on the project in the ’90s, eventually opening the restaurant in 2012. Ultraviolet features a single table and has been awarded three Michelin stars, becoming an iconic location for those seeking culinary thrills and strange and unique meals. But the exquisite food is just one piece of this fascinating package.
Ultraviolet provides a meticulously controlled immersive environment and impeccable service, “hacking” into the emotions of their patrons and bringing every taste and texture to life. The restaurant itself is a blank canvas: four bare walls surrounding 10 seats at a single table. The room’s audio and visuals are controlled by staff who monitor each diner’s progress through the 22-course menu in order to provide perfectly timed service. Pairet and his team weave together an entire tableau for each dish: while eating lobster rolls, diners are surrounded by the sights and sounds of a crashing ocean; while munching on fish and chips, diners are transported to London with sights and smells, as well as songs by the Beatles. Every element is carefully composed to support the “perception of taste,” which Ultraviolet refers to as the elusive “psycho-taste.”
Virtual menus and delicious holograms
Moving out of the avant-garde and into the more utilitarian, Kabaq is working to make menus come alive. Alper Guler and his partner Caner Soyer use augmented-reality tools similar to the ones architects employ, creating incredibly real 3-D models of food that appear as diners peruse their menus. “The concept of the ‘uncanny valley’ suggests humanoid objects which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings, eliciting strangely familiar feelings of eeriness and revulsion,” says Gulper. “I believe food fits well into this category… [The] era of Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat changed [how] we eat at restaurants. Today food isn’t just taste, but visual as well.”
Kabaq presents diners with a unique and thrilling look at their food before it is ever ordered, projected in a full 360º rendition on their plate. Utilizing the power of visually driven media, Kabaq’s highly realistic 3-D models can be accessed with the touch of a screen, helping diners sort through their menus for whatever they’re in the mood for. The technology makes sense in a time when we’re pushing our interactions with restaurants and dining services further and further toward our phones and computers.
“We are leveraging augmented reality to offer new ways of presenting food,” says Guler. “Our main goal is to help customers to decide what to eat. While doing that, we are helping restaurants to tell stories about their food.”
How much technology belongs on the table?
This storytelling element is the most exciting part of AR for many of the businesses looking to throw the weight of this tool behind their food and beverage programs as a way to enhance their brand in an ever-more-competitive dining scene. This ability to take consumers into another reality, another place, or even just to change the reality around them the tiniest bit is how places like Ultraviolet and groups like Kabaq are trying to capture the attention of media-savvy patrons long enough to share the stories of their food and drink.
Kabaq seeks to use AR to cut through the wall that technology has put up at the dining table, where we were once left to converse uninterrupted by buzzing phones. “The social aspect of dining together has switched to taking photos and engaging on social media,” says Guler. “But it depends on each person to decide how much technology they want to include with their eating habits. If you are the type of person that can put your phone aside and talk to your friends and family, you can still do that. Or you can go totally immersive.”