Reality, whether perceived or virtual, was a key theme at this year’s YFood London Food Tech Week.

A huge amount of emphasis was placed on the physical eating experience, and the event’s second day, ‘The Tech Food Reality’, raised the question of whether what we perceive when consuming food and drink can be altered by technology, and if so, what the purpose would be of achieving this goal.

It has been established that specific sounds can alter our perception of taste, but what about tricking our sense of sight? Advances in augmented reality mean that in the not-so-distant future, we could well be eating one thing, while perceiving it to be another.

Tricking our sense of taste

Visuals are a big part of the eating experience, and with the popularity of sharing food images on social media sites such as Instagram, in what has been labelled ‘food porn’, making food attractive to look at is arguably more important than ever.

Dr Katsunori Okajima, professor at the faculty of environment and information sciences at the Yokohama National University, Japan, believes that augmented reality can be used to take advantage of the appealing nature of attractive food, and could even one day be a staple in public health policies, encouraging people to eat healthy by making nutritious food more eye-catching.

Okajima’s research has shown that altering the colour and visual texture of a food changes how appealing the foodstuff is perceived to be. Using augmented reality to modify the look of food on the plate could trick the brain into a different taste experience, and even encourage dietary changes if used extensively. A study published by Okajima in the Brain and Cognition journal states that there are “dramatic physiological and neurophysiological changes seen in response to food images,” meaning that what we see is intrinsically linked to the eating experience.

To a lesser degree, the idea of using augmented reality to alter eating habits is actually already in use. In 2016 the Habit.at app was developed for the Los Angeles HoloHacks competition, winning the ‘social good’ category. The app changes the world around the dinner plate using a mixed reality headset, hoping to dissuade the bad eating habits that are formed as early as six months into our lives. The fun environment attempts to associate healthy foods with positive visual stimuli, combatting the growing trend diet-related health problems found in young children.

A food-scarce future

Speaking at London Food Tech Week, Charles Spence, head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology, envisioned another application for augmented reality – combatting food scarcity. “You can imagine a future where the seas have been fished to extinction of your favourite sushi fish,” he says. “You could don the headset that you may well use for movies, and with a move of your hand change the food in front of you to a different meat or fish. You can add virtual cream to a cup of coffee, or you can virtually change the temperature of a dish by adding virtual steam.”

Food scarcity is a growing concern. Many foods, such as popular species of fish, are projected to disappear from our dinner plates in the coming decades. Augmented reality could help us get used to eating replacement foodstuffs, while still feeling like we’re experiencing the real thing.