The Future of Food Is Likely Not in an Oculus Headset

What role can or should VR play in food?

Photos: Gary He

Spillage was my biggest concern leading up to my first virtual reality dinner. I’d read horror stories of headset-clad guests at other VR events, some of whom had paid thousands of dollars for the privilege, missing their mouths entirely and dropping food across their clavicles instead. VR dinners don’t come around every day, and I fretted wildly about acquiring a case of butterfingers as I sat in the lobby of the historic James Beard House in New York last month awaiting entrance to Aerobanquets RMX.

Aerobanquets is a collaboration between Italian artist Mattia Casalegno and chef Chintan Pandya and restaurateur Roni Mazumdar of the Rahi and Adda restaurants in New York. It involves eating while wearing a headset that takes you into an alternate dimension inspired by 1932’s “Futurist Cookbook,” a seminal avant-garde Italian text that served as a manifesto for Futurist ideology. Virtual renderings connected to each course (“bite” might be more accurate) are projected into 3-D augmented reality objects while you eat, and the accompanying video is narrated by Gail Simmons of “Top Chef.” They’re positioning the event as part art exhibit, part meal, and part video game; the three-month run at the James Beard House this winter is first time Aerobanquets has been “performed” in the U.S. after previous shows in China and South Korea. (It closes January 26.)

Aerobanquets is not the first attempt at a VR dining experience. A few others have tried — there’s Tree by Naked in Tokyo, a mixed-media concept restaurant involving a headset that at one point projects images of farm animals; Sublimotion, a $2,000-a-head “gastronomic opera” in Ibiza; and City Social, an augmented reality cocktail bar in London. There are non-restaurant experiments, too: A team of scientists in Singapore developed a “digital lollipop” with electrodes to stimulate taste sensations on the tongue; a startup called Project Nourished in LA is prototyping “VR gastronomy” involving blobs of agar-agar and a 3-D printer. So far, however, most of those endeavors remain limited in scope and execution; Aerobanquets, if it’s a hit, could theoretically be franchised out to satellite locations around the world. Whether it should be is another story.

The VR industry is only getting bigger — recent research projects the market to grow from $7.9 billion in 2018 to $44.7 billion by 2024. VR gaming is a red-hot industry; VR food is more tricky. Here’s the thing about VR: For it to work — really work, as in, whisk us away to a different reality — the experience needs to engage all of our senses at once. And taste is intimately linked to touch and smell, two of the most complex, internal sensations humans possess, both notoriously challenging to simulate in these early days of VR tech.

“The senses that we can cater to the most in VR, at the moment, are audio and visual,” said John Akers, director of research and education for the University of Washington Reality Lab. “You don’t see a lot of work being done with taste, and I think the fact that people haven’t even really attempted to recreate it is a testament to its difficulty.”

Why bother even trying to bring VR into food? There’s a fantasy factor, sure: Imagine chewing on a flavorless gummy and “feeling” like you’re eating a 10-course meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo. It’s possible that VR food, if it ever takes off, could become mere fodder for a generation of bored, bourgeois foodies. On the other hand, VR food could also be used to help treat obesity and diabetes, to educate the public about our rapidly changing food systems, and to help connect an increasingly globalized world — not necessarily the worst things.

It’s possible that VR food, if it ever takes off, could become mere fodder for a generation of bored, bourgeois foodies. On the other hand, VR food could also be used to help treat obesity and diabetes, to educate the public about our rapidly changing food systems, and to help connect an increasingly globalized world — not necessarily the worst things.

Aerobanquets is different from previous VR food attempts both in terms of its tech (it’s not so much attempting to recreate the sensation of taste as it is to completely reprogram it) and its accessibility. At $125 a pop, it’s not exactly cheap, but it’s affordable enough to put VR food in the realm of theater or a special-occasion meal. That doesn’t mean it will connect with the public, for a variety of reasons: people attend a theater and a restaurant with very different expectations about service, structure, and control. And it’s our general tendency to want eating to be a full-sense experience. “Dining in the dark” experiments, while theoretically enhancing our sense of smell and taste by stripping away sight, were a novelty in the early 2000s that are easy to dismiss today as a gimmick. There’s also an argument to be made against the isolating nature of a VR meal, with dinner being one of the last vestiges of a shared experience in our increasingly divided world.

Mitchell Davis, the chief strategy officer at the Beard Foundation, is careful to position Aerobanquets as neither dinner nor a show, but rather, an event involving art, technology, and food.

“This is not an alternative to dining out. It’s a tool to interrogate food and dining, using art and technology to open ourselves up,” he said. “I think the real value of this experience comes when you take the Oculus off and talk — no one wants to be in a restaurant full of people wearing headsets, not engaging with each other.”

Casalegno, too, bristled at the suggestion that VR meals are an isolating experience — he pointed out that while participants face away from each other initially, they’re turned around during the course of the meal, so by the time the headset comes off, diners are facing one another. Then, we were whisked to another room to discuss how we feel.

There was a lot of debriefing, as it turns out. I didn’t need to worry about making a mess; we were given a pre-meal tutorial on how to properly hold and tilt the sensor-equipped plates Casalegno had jerry-rigged for the project. Then we were strapped in to an Oculus headset and swept away to a surreal interactive world where each course corresponded to different “scenes” loosely based on the myth of Persephone, the Greek goddess of the underworld. Describing the visuals is a bit like trying to describe an acid trip: lots of abstract colors, shapes, and patterns; visions of serene beauty; and a few frankly terrifying moments, like playing a xylophone made out of animal bones. Despite the trippiness of the visuals, I left hungry for a more transportive experience, one that would allow me to forget entirely that I was sitting in a conference room on the fourth floor of a brownstone and deposit me in a new dimension. But for all the lofty artistic ideas presented in Aerobanquets, the, ahem, reality is that the technology is still in its infancy.

Afterward, Casalegno and Mazumdar led our group into another room for a post-meal discussion of what we’d experienced, which stretched on for nearly an hour. I was impressed at how animated the roundtable became, although because of the artist’s presence, politeness may have overshadowed true critique. Participant Morgan Rossi told me after the meeting that the food seemed almost like an afterthought. “It was advertised as VR and food, but it was really art,” she said. “The food came second, and I wasn’t expecting that.” She left wanting a stronger narrative in the video and more direction on interacting with the food in the virtual reality.

This is not to denigrate Pandya’s considerable culinary skill (he is a Beard Award semifinalist), but it is reflective of the overwhelmingness of the Aerobanquets sensory experience. There was, we learned after the fact, a crunchy watermelon chaat and a bit of seared lamb with a layer of dried fennel and orange leather and gummied papaya chutney, along with a dessert of slippery-cool falooda with vermicelli and rosewater that we slurped while our headsets projected images of marble statues being slowly enveloped in a sea of rising milk.

There is, simply put, a lot to process, and not much context, which for Casalegno, an experiential artist whose work revolves around new media and technology, is something of the point. “When you have no preconceived idea of what you are going to eat, you instinctively focus more on the true sensation of taste,” he said. “When you order from a menu in a restaurant, you have at least a broad sense of what to expect, based on your past memories and knowledge. But how should a cluster of rounded primitives, green rhomboids, and white planes taste?” His goal is to encourage “a state of openness” that “allows the senses to be more awake,” by virtue of reprogramming our frame of reference completely.

That mission seemed to have worked, at least according to one visibly shaken participant in our post-meal postmortem with Casalegno and Mazumdar: “I have no idea what I ate and no concept of how long I was in there. I quickly realized that nothing I’ve learned out here was going to help me in whatever crazy world I was in. I felt like a baby,” said the diner, who asked not to be named. Mazumdar laughed and said he sounded like a plant. “That’s exactly what we want people to say when they walk out of here,” he said.

Exactly what role VR can or should play with regard to food is something of an open question. For Casalegno, using virtual reality to manipulate taste is a step toward creating a gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, one that encompasses all of the senses. “Artists have been striving to make this kind of work since the ages, and these technologies are just bringing us one step closer,” he said. Mazumdar and Pandya, who are in the business of hospitality, see VR food as an entirely new way of experiencing food, not as a threat to the existing model.

And it remains to be seen how widespread food-related VR experiences become. There are seemingly far-fetched possibilities that the technology cannot yet match, not to mention significant barriers to cost and access and a healthy dose of skepticism from much of the food-consuming public (that is to say, regular people). It’s also unclear what will happen to Aerobanquets after its stint at the Beard House winds down; Casalegno has plans to tour the show in other cities and dreams of creating a network of spaces around the world to serve as hybrids between experimental labs and small restaurants. The Beard Foundation’s Davis said he’s “not really ready for anything that removes the communality of sharing a meal,” but praised Aerobanquets for bringing art into the experience of eating and pushing the boundaries of sensory perception. “There are so many possibilities for what we can do differently,” he said.

But for now, Casalegno said, it’s enough to simply start with the basics: “In a world where we consume quick prepackaged meals between meetings and put more thought into taking pictures of our food than actually savoring its taste, creating new forms of experiencing food that reconnects us to our senses is one of the most radical things I can do.”

Writer, editor, outer borough dining aficionado. www.jamiefeldmar.com

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