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When food industry meets the world of virtual reality

A futurecasting of how the worlds of AR and VR can collide with the F&B industry to impact our eating habits and how we interact with food

Innovations that can simulate tastes, bio-aromas and scents through the VR headset are currently underway.
Innovations that can simulate tastes, bio-aromas and scents through the VR headset are currently underway. (Pexels/Darlene Alderson)

In 2021, deep in the heart of covid-19 and when most people didn’t care otherwise, Facebook changed its name to Meta. At the time, I hadn’t the foggiest notion of what they meant, and it took another two years (to precisely now) to understand what was happening: Meta has embarked on its grand plan to adopt an early stance in virtual reality. This virtual reality was called a “metaverse”.

Even if someone decided to waste their time walking me through the mere idea of metaverses, it would have been a long, arduous slog to get me to understand what technology advancements are being cooked up, and cooking, they most certainly are. Getting down to brass tacks, “a metaverse is a virtual reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment with other users,” according to Oxford Dictionaries.

Also read: AI-driven diets and the future of our food habits

I don’t blame you if this sounds like a gamer who doesn’t get off the couch to play video games with a headset on, chatting to people around the world. Although the gaming industry is one of the forerunners in developing virtual reality, other sectors are now ready to sink their teeth in. For example, some reasons behind exploring virtual worlds, or metaverses, seem practical. Disaster relief teams could use virtual reality to train on specific life-threatening situations in a safe space, and surgical teams could run through a complicated surgery in advance without the high-stakes fear of mucking it all up. 

A recent report by Deliveroo, a British online food aggregator, on future food trends contained a generous section waxing beautifully about the intersection of the food industry and virtual and augmented reality and its endless possibilities. The brainstorming continues and everyone, including the food industry, wants a piece of this pie. The likes of McDonalds, Coca Cola, and Maggi have dipped their toes into creating a metaverse of food experiences, or at least snapping up patents to do so, according to an article on Medium titled, How to Start a Food Business in the Metaverse.

Decoding AR, VR and Metaverses
Food companies are looking at ways to expand their social media influence and new ways consumers can interact with their food. Here, it’s good to distinguish between virtual and augmented reality. Virtual reality is putting on a headset and, in essence, mentally stepping inside a virtual reality. In contrast, augmented reality uses virtual components in our physical world—like Tony Stark in Iron Man, whizzing up screens in his laboratory and 3D digital models.

Food companies looking to dabble in augmented reality may want to host live cooking classes, which a participant can do from the comfort of their kitchen, or use blockchain technology to trace the journey of their food ingredients from farm to table.

Also read: How virtual reality can help calm caregivers of children undergoing surgery

However, for those companies interested in virtual reality, the technology becomes a little more pie-in-the-sky, where one day, we could smell and taste virtual food to make better food choices when we order. Whether food companies decide to create a virtual or augmented reality, the options are only limited to their imagination; the pesky technology problem is simply a hurdle our world’s brightest minds will conquer in time. It’s the bluest ocean of opportunity one has ever seen.

In many ways, virtual reality and metaverses are still largely conceptual but at the same time, real enough for big businesses to sink their money into it. McKinsey has boldly stated that by 2030, it will be an industry worth 5 trillion USD. But creating a successful metaverse requires input from many technologies that must be developed or refined. Tech Target tells us that innovations in artificial intelligence, brain-to-computer interfaces, blockchain, 3D modeling and reconstructing, and spatial and edge computing still need to be made to create fully functioning metaverses.

Creating scents and flavours for the headset
But that’s not all. Creating a virtual experience for a product or a place is difficult enough; imagine trying to capture tastes, textures, and smells, which are the underpinnings of an enjoyable food experience. The question is, how can you create casual wafting smells and flavour profiles that do your food justice when experiencing them through a headset? 

Well, most smells are only created with a handful of different molecules, and by creating cartridges for your headset, they could be programmed to mix and match different molecules, recreating the perfect scent associated with certain foods. Theoretically, your headset could release aromas milliseconds before you naturally inhale, when looking at a plate of food. 

It’s not as futuristic as it may sound; according to the article Will the Metaverse Ever Feel Real by AR, VR, metaverse and XR solutions provider Mazer, metaverse tech start-up Hypnos Virtual has developed Scentscape using a neuroscience-based data stream called Bio-Media, which aims to release bio-aromas as the user goes through the metaverse. Another company, OVR Technology, is developing a scent cartridge that can be attached to a VR headset and release nanoparticles of scent milliseconds before the user inhales to create an authentic experience.

Also read: How app-based mindfulness practice could improve children’s mental health

As for taste, this is where it gets tricky, but that has yet to stop a team at the Meiji University in Tokyo from developing a technology that could stimulate an authentic sense of taste without ingesting any food. They created five different electrolyte gels: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami, in separate tubes, which can be programmed into different flavour combinations when licked. These taste tubes would be sold as accessories to your VR headset. I would say that the texture of food is the final frontier, however, I’m sure there is someone beavering away on that technology now, as I write this.

Food is a collective bonding experience; we cook together, use food to celebrate, and commiserate together, as a way of sitting down and catching up or an activity to do while getting to know someone. So, if all this technology coalesces and builds a virtual reality space for the food and beverage immersion experience, then it certainly will be an exciting advancement for civilization, and I hope, just a novel one.

After all, we are seeing unprecedented numbers of people with addictive behaviours or those suffering from depression, loneliness , all looking for connection. Now, the possibility offered by living an entire life experience via a headset from the comforts of your couch may help reduce feelings of isolation. The convenience and world-opening opportunities are exciting, as are the terrifying potential downfalls of living outside of our reality. I sincerely hope it’s used in a way that betters the human experience on this earth.

Jen Thomas is a master women’s health coach.

Also read: Why you need to steer clear of ultra-processed foods


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