Imagine you walk into a restaurant and before you get to your table, a camera scans your face and body and transmits all your ethnographic data into a database. The maître d’ welcomes you, and before you start your meal, you are asked to fill in a 30-question sensory form that will create the dishes you will eat that night. By the way, there is no menu: the algorithms (and the sensors in the camera) will tell the chef in the kitchen what you want to eat that night.
Before the first dish, the maître d’ brings virtual reality glasses that allow you to observe the artworks displayed on the walls – these are NFTs of leading digital artists who only exist virtually. When you look across the table, your dining partner (who physically located elsewhere) smiles at you, begins to drink the same cocktail that you currently have in your hand. You chat with your partner for a few minutes until the waiter announces that the first meal has arrived. And finally you can start eating.
Although it may seems like a science fiction scene, this restaurant could soon be in operation. The technology already exists. And it will start to become more common in the coming years. Just as the pandemic has accelerated new ways of interacting with food digitally, there seems to be little doubt that digitalization will change the dining scene as we know it.
It’s obviously not easy to understand what the metaverse really is and how digital dining will eventually become a reality. What could food look like in a virtual world, and what does that mean for restaurants? At this point, nobody really knows much. The interest in the metaverse will touch all industrie – even food brands are trying to take advantage of it by inventing virtual reality to interact with their audiences, as author Jamie Shackleton writes in a recent report from consultancy and technology company Wunderman Thompsone.
In OneRare, billed as the world’s first food metaverse, you can visit a virtual restaurant with a menu from a celebrity chef, where the signature dish might be butter chicken or cacio e pepe.
In short, the metaverse is an immersive, collective and hyper-realistic virtual environment that represents a step forward in social interaction. Digitally, there are new ways to sharpen the senses and consume content. It is a way of using the internet, through virtual reality, where people can communicate using personalized avatars.
“It is important to remember that this is a path that is being paved; we still don’t know where it can lead us,” says José Pelaez, digital transformation coordinator at BCC Innovation, at the Basque Culinary Center in Spain. “It’s the way we are for the metaverse, just as we were for social media first came out. There was a lot of speculation, there was a promise of interaction between people, and then even companies started building their profiles. It is only today that we were more aware of its functions, even if the new things are not fully developed.”
Pelaez is behind the team putting together one of the first ever dinners that will take place on the metaverse on 18th July. Together with LABe Restaurant, the Crypto Pintxos project aims to connects the worlds of gastronomy and blockchains by staging a digital dining experience, which will select five NFTs to be transformed by real-world chefs into real world dishes to be cooked and eaten at the dinner. “As so much of our lives are in the digital environment, we want to test how we can build and experience interactions between people and food. We are looking forward to understanding how we can stimulate the sense of sight and smell in new sensorial ways, but virtually” Pelaez explains.
According to experts, in the future, the metaverse will transport us to a completely digital world and we can use it to meet with friends, go to a concert, go for shopping, have dinner, although you can’t physically eat a meal online.
From experiencing a restaurant from the comfort of your own home, and connecting with others at a virtual reality (VR) table, to visiting a digital farmer’s market and having the chance to make donations to a virtual community fridge (which corresponds to a real fridge located in Indonesia), the technologies underpinning the metaverse are starting to shape a new path for the world of gastronomy.
“Although we might still be only halfway there, there’s no way back,” says Erich Eichstetter, a chef, designer and tech scout, who is part of the same team as Pelaez. He recently worked on extensive research on how digitisation is taking over the restaurant industry, and found over 300 digital tools that have been created in recent years in Spain alone, where the survey took place. “From front office to back office, we list 16 categories, encompassing digital menu, ordering system, robotics. Today, for practically every need in the hospitality sector, there is at least one startup creating a particular interface that could not even exist without the digital technologies.”
“In the tests, a lot of people tasted things that they would not order if they had to choose for themselves. What’s interesting is the fusion of digital and the physical that it creates, what we call a ‘phygital’ experience,” he says. For example, the chef continues to cook, but there is a fascinating digital factor behind him. “In the future, there may even be a ‘food passport’, a document that allows restaurants to have a history of what a diner generally likes and what he/she has eaten in recent years, which could be used by all the restaurants he/she frequents.” The idea is that you upload your data and the restaurant knows exactly what to serve you.
While food brands are involved, restaurants are only scratching the surface of the physical-digital possibilities that have ar’sen on the horizon as the metaverse becomes more accessible. At Alchemist in Copenhagen, one of today’s most innovative restaurants, chef Rasmus Munk and his team embrace technology and the digital world to create a unique experience for their guests.
For example, to choose a wine, the waiters present an iPad, a tactile element that can be played over the digital list, creating new connections and references that a traditional menu could never offer. Another innovation is called Lifeline, which presents a QR code that is also a call-to-action – as many guests take pictures of the food, the code that accompanies the dish automatically leads to a sign-up site where people can donate blood. But according to Munk, making the digital world an integral part of the dining experience is still difficult.
“My concern with the idea is that it covers the entire culinary part of the experience,” he says. He compares this to some kits that contain ingredients for people to prepare certain restaurant dishes at home, where the result depends on their skills, equipment and the chef doesn’t have all the control. “But I think it can be used as a tool in many situations, like transporting people to a different world who might not be able to visit a restaurant,” he adds.
At the moment, Munk and his team are working on a project together with a children’s hospital, in which they have plans to use VR to transport the kids to an apple orchard while eating an apple to enhance their experience. “It can be a connection factor,” Musk explains. He is skeptical as to whether restaurants can become essentially digital in the future. “Even if you can create a feeling of community in a virtual space, the pulse and energy will be lacking from experience. Restaurant industry is too complex and dependent on human interaction and adaptation.”
In an industry led by people for people, there are ways the metaverse can make gastronomy better for those who are part of it — since a shift toward digitisation is inevitable, as the experts say. In the metaverse, digital platforms such as web3 (blockchain-based web) will allow, for example, to tokenise processes and operations to generate new business models that can be more decentralised.