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Taste-Hacking and the Food Tech on the Dinner Table of the Future

Culture

Theodora Karatzas | March 28, 2018
From virtual menus to taste bud–altering drinks, a look at some of the tech that is poised to enhance our gastronomic lives.

While restaurant-finding tools and food/drink review apps have become de rigueur, we are entering an age of increasingly transformative technology, when all it takes is the swipe of a screen to trick our brains into seeing what’s not really there. Technology is shifting every aspect of our lives, including the way we eat and drink. Some may bemoan the swift infiltration of technology into our real-life experiences, but many others have embraced this changing reality, harnessing the newfound power to augment the way we consume and experience our food and beverages.

Tricking Your Taste Buds

One of these people is Dr. Nimesha Ranasinghe, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore who developed the Vocktail. Through his work in digital multisensory interactions, Dr. Ranasinghe’s “virtual cocktail” provides an interactive drinking experience through a special glass and smart-phone app, allowing users to trick their taste buds by tweaking the smell, color, and flavor of what’s in their drink.

Image courtesy of Vocktail

“Vocktail is an attempt to simulate flavors digitally or to digitally augment the flavor experiences by manipulating external sensory information,” Dr. Ranasinghe says. “Our approach is to augment the beverage flavor experience by overlaying external sensory stimuli … to create an adjustable flavor experience.”

The 3-D-printed Vocktail looks like a traditional cocktail glass with electronics and other components attached to it. Three “smell chambers” allow users to select the experience they want via the app on their phone, and new smells can easily be plugged in, “similar to a cartridge on an inkjet printer,” notes Dr. Ranasinghe. The glass also features LED lights for subtle color enhancements, as well as electrodes on the rim that signal salty, bitter, or sour tastes. Dr. Ranasinghe’s work gets to the heart of what consumption is made of, peeling back the layers of sensory experiences and redefining the reality of taste.

Image courtesy of Vocktail

“Flavor is mainly how we perceive food or beverages, and it consists of multisensory information including visual, taste, smell, among others,” he says. “Therefore, we hypothesized that by enabling users to control these attributes, the flavor experiences can be augmented or adjusted according to their preferences. This also [allows] users to experimentally create new flavors.”

Dr. Ranasinghe hopes to bring his invention to the general public in the future, enabling pub patrons to tweak the flavor of their drinks, making them a little sourer or adding a hint of vanilla, for example. He and his team are also aiming to expand the kinds of augmentations users will be able to make.

Image courtesy of Vocktail

“More than the app, we are focusing on augmenting the flavors and what different media we can incorporate to do it,” Dr. Ranasinghe says. “We would like to simulate other attributes of a beverage, such as temperature, fizziness, etc. … We are not only interested in adding these attributes but [also in] learning from these attempts and prototypes we develop — mainly on the human perception of flavors.”

Tricking Your Eyes

While Dr. Ranasinghe has focused on a total sensory experience, other developers are looking into ways of tricking the eye through augmented reality. KabaQ is a new virtual menu app that allows restaurant patrons to see 3-D images of the food they’re considering projected right on their plate before they ever order it.

Image courtesy of KabaQ

While the tool was developed for menus, the original aim for the technology was something a little different. “My partner [Caner Soyer] and I were working on an augmented-reality technology to create a platform for architects,” says KabaQ cofounder and managing partner Alper Guler. “The idea for KabaQ came to mind when we were having a dinner at a Turkish restaurant with friends. I was trying to tell what each dish looks and tastes like, and Caner mentioned the idea of using similar technology to what we have been working for architecture to food items.”

The shift toward visually immersive tools makes sense. Given that many restaurants now design their interiors with Instagram-snapping patrons in mind, and the popularity that social media can bring to a restaurant, why not add a visual dimension to the menu? “As humans, we are very visual, and seeing food on your table virtually helps you to decide what to order,” says Guler. KabaQ gives the full visual experience right on one’s plate, letting the indecisive customer get a full 360º view of each food item, rather than craning your neck as a waiter walks by with your neighbor’s food.

Image courtesy of EatWith

Tricking Your Social Circle

Dining apps aren’t just here to enhance each individual’s experience — they’re also being developed to bring people together. Shared dining apps like EatWith are popping up to take the loneliness out of cooking and dining, striving to create community around special dining experiences.

“EatWith was developed to bring people together through food in private homes and exclusive venues around the world,” says CEO Jean-Michel Petit. “From dinner parties to cooking classes to food tours, EatWith connects locals and travelers at unique, immersive culinary experiences.”

Image courtesy of EatWith

Geared toward travelers and working to connect the global community, EatWith is now the world’s largest social dining platform, available in more than 130 countries. And with an eye toward expanded offerings in Southeast Asia and Latin America, it doesn’t look like the company will be slowing down anytime soon.

“The future of dining apps will continue to change the way people travel on a global scale, one meal at a time,” says Petit. “Experience is the new luxury, and food is all about the journey!”

Image courtesy of EatWith

These apps and other emerging technologies will continue to alter many facets of the way we eat and drink. Whether we’re mechanizing food prep, delivering pizzas via drone, or reserving leftovers at our favorite restaurant, there’s sure to be no shortage of innovation in the years to come as we explore myriad new ways to enhance our gastronomic lives into the future.


For more about the fabulous future of the dining experience, click here.

For some dispatches from the restaurant of tomorrow, go here.

For the fantastic fine-dining future of 3D-printed food, try here.

For a taste of what we’ll be drinking in 50 years, head here.


To discover more distinctive culture, try Heritage | Fernet-Branca.


Theodora Karatzas Theodora Karatzas is a writer, content producer, and occasional DJ based in San Francisco. She is originally from Portland, OR, and used to play the flute pretty well. Find her at theokaratzas.com.

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