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Augmented reality cuisine

Mike Cadoux of QReal describes a future in which 3D augmented reality (AR) cuisine starts a revolution in visualising, ordering and storytelling around food.

Take a ride on a New York City subway sometime and observe all the people completely engrossed in their phones - hunched over, thumbs sliding, oblivious to the world. If you had seen this reality just ten years ago, you would have assigned it to science fiction. This will continue to happen in a multitude of ways as artificial intelligence, robotics and bioengineering shape our near term future in ways that are hard to fathom now.

The 3D age

The way we experience food media will drastically change in the coming years. The media landscape has transitioned from text to pictures to video and will soon enter the 3D age. 3D content will not make all others obsolete, just as video did not kill the picture. It will, however, become a necessary part of the digital experience. When a brand comes out with a new product, it will be launched with creative text, high end photography, theatrical video content, and lifelike 3D models for online retail showcasing. While currently customers make food choices based on a thumbnail picture or a couple lines of text, augmented reality (AR) will bring that dish directly onto the table in front of them. They will use their phone to inspect the cuisine in detail. The experience will also include multimedia content ‘placed’ in the world around the dish. In AR, content is no longer fighting for screen space - the world is your canvas.

The biggest tech companies in the world, from Google to Apple to Microsoft to Facebook are all investing billions of dollars to bring this reality to life as quickly as possible. According to Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, augmented reality is going to change everything[1].

Building 3D models

QReal is one of the first companies to develop technology to capture 3D food images for AR. To date, 3D modelling has been based on technologies, such as CAD (computer aided design) or CGI (computer generated imagery), which can create very realistic models, but cannot capture an organic form like food in lifelike detail. A cartoon pizza does not make you want to eat it. QReal has been working for 2 years on lifelike detail that can trick the brain into thinking the food is truly there, creating an almost Pavlovian response of hunger.

In order to make 3D asset creation practically work for brands, it was imperative to develop a process that would fit within the current workflows and distribution channels of brands and restaurants’ media. Models are created with a photo shoot that is usually tacked on to the end of a ‘regular’ one - so the brand will get its 2D photo content and 3D AR content in a single shoot. The photographic process is technical, but can be taught to partner organisations. They capture the photographs and send them to QReal for processing and optimisation; the content is then loaded to the web, social media or an app.

AR can be presented right through the web on most iOS and Android devices. A single line of code, replacing a thumbnail, can bring users to a rich experience with a few clicks on any website. The social media channels were some of the pioneers in bringing this technology to life. Snapchat has been inundating its user base with AR for years, without users even knowing that they are experiencing AR. Apps have been powering AR experiences for years; brands like IKEA have allowed you to place furniture in your home to test its fit.

The biggest change for brands will be a heightened focus on enhancing craveability and transparency through AR experiences.

Impact of AR

There are vast implications for the widespread use of AR. The biggest change for brands will be a heightened focus on enhancing craveability and transparency through AR experiences. Showing a pretty picture is nice, but creating desire and educating the consumer is incredibly powerful. QReal has been working with a number of universities on studies of the impact of AR cuisine. These institutions, including Oxford, Newcastle University and The University of New South Wales, are investigating the potential impact AR will have on consumers. So far, all the studies have demonstrated the power of AR to influence consumer behaviour.

Stimulating hunger is incredibly powerful, but we also want to understand its impact on actual decision-making. Our goal is not just to heighten the brand through AR, but to also increase sales or upsell customers. A study carried out on QReal’s AR food models in collaboration with the University of New South Wales Business School, King’s Business School, Maastricht University and the University of Sussex and published in the Journal of Retail, found that ‘the AR-enabled frontline improves decision comfort, motivates positive WOM (word of mouth) and facilitates choice of higher value products[2].

The study also found that, ‘on the revenue side, the effect of AR on decision comfort also explains the increase in choice engagement of participants when assessing their choices.’ The researchers found that the ability of AR to offload mental imagery to the technology (or, to put it simply, the customer does not need to use too much imagination) was an incredibly powerful tool in promoting positive decision-making. Craveability is a goal for all food-based companies  wishing to impart a deep-seated desire among customers for their foods. This has large impacts for both branding and sales.

With the coming of AR cuisine, creative food images will become less important and transparency in food will necessarily increase. There is no ideal perspective in 3D or AR; it is not possible to take a photo of a burger from the right angle to make it look towering or show the lettuce and sauce just at the right glistening angle when the object is displayed in 3D. Customers will gain full access to the virtual dish; they will inspect it from all sides and render opinions on the whole, not the specific shot. QReal still uses food styling, but there is very little post-production. What it looks like going in is what it will look like coming out. Until now, customers have been willing to see a stylised photograph and eat a dish that does not necessarily accord with that perfected picture. 

Customers will gain full access to the virtual dish; they will inspect it from all sides and render opinions on the whole, not the specific shot.

The future

AR is also close to being able to show everything at true scale. Depth sensing cameras are coming to phones (they are already on many of them) and these will enable the technology to exactly scale items to size. Shoes will fit on feet, dresses will fit your form and burgers will be presented in a specific size. It will afford the customer ample opportunity to compare the 3D image of the dish with the representation in the media. This movement has already begun with the pervasiveness of Instagram in restaurants, which have been forced to post their dishes.

The world of AR media, product showcasing and storytelling is well on the way. It will increasingly be applied to fashion and household items as well as high fidelity digital cuisine.

Everything discussed above is available today and its impact will be felt in the near future. The brands that understand and plan for it will reap the benefits of being positioned to capitalise on a revolutionary new technology.

Mike Cadoux, General Manager, QReal

The Glimpse Group, 70 W. 40th St. 16th fl., New York







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