The Un-Instagrammable Dish: why an Oxford professor thinks we should all eat off iPads

“Something that you don’t put in your mouth can nevertheless change the taste of what you are eating.” 

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Charles Spence knows how to make good food taste better. Over the years, he has discovered that dinners look and feel more delicious if you use heavy cutlery; that strawberry mousse tastes sweeter on a white plate than on a black one; and that if you amplify the sound of a Pringle being bitten, it tastes 15 percent fresher.

“Something that you don’t put in your mouth can nevertheless change the taste of what you are eating,” says Spence, who is a professor of experimental psychology and head of the Crossmodal Research group at the University of Oxford. Now, Spence is developing a new concept: the Un-Instagrammable Dish. Part of this will involve plating up food on iPads (or, any other tablet of your choice).

“It’s a growing trend,” says Spence, of people taking pictures of their food. “It certainly has some positive sides, maybe it helps you enjoy your food more and maybe it makes the food more memorable, but I do think there's a danger of some chefs and mixologists spending too long thinking about what will look good and maybe not spending enough time thinking about what will also taste good as well.”

But Spence doesn’t think we should use our tablets as plates just so we can’t use them to take pictures. “It’s bizarre when you think how much technology in the home has advanced and become ubiquitous almost everywhere in the home apart from at the kitchen table,” he says. “Why should we keep those things separate?” Spence believes that by using tech we already own (rather than expensive VR headsets), everyone can dine better.  

Take, for example, a fish dish. Rather than your waiter plonking down a big, round, white plate, the food would arrive on your table plated on a tablet. While you ate, sounds of the sea would emanate from the device. As you took your first bite, you would notice that beneath the food lay an image of waves gently lapping against the shore.

“Various kinds of auditory, visual backdrops or contexts or environments can enhance both how much we enjoy and how much we’re willing to pay for food,” explains Spence, who first tested this concept with “The Sound of the Sea,” a dish he created with chef Heston Blumenthal. When diners ordered the meal at his restaurant, The Fat Duck, it arrived with an iPod through which they could play ocean sounds. “We know from the evidence that it can enhance your experience of seafood,” says Spence. “But what happens when you add the visuals?”

Charles Spence, credit: Kitchen Theory

The augmented reality in the Un-Instagrammble Dish may answer that question. As well as allowing for “sonic seasoning” (sounds that make things taste better), Spence believes iPads could be used to change the colour of the “plate” so it complements the dish – something he has proven in the past can make food taste sweeter, spicier, or just better. Yet Spence doesn’t just think tech will help food be more enjoyable. He believes an iPad plate could be used to make us question our eating habits.

“On the one hand [we could] dissuade people from eating the stuff they’re all too comfortable eating, on the other hand it’s making things that one might not think of eating more accessible,” Spence explains. He works with Jozef Youssef of Kitchen Theory to develop new dining experiences, and in the past has shown people projections of cows before they ate beef, or played the sounds of a bird being chased and dying before serving them a duck dish.

“It connects you to the source in a way that makes you think, ‘are you sure you want to eat that?’,” says Spence, who also feels augmented reality could encourage people to eat bugs. “Telling people that [bugs] are good for them or they’re good for the planet or sustainable or proteinaceous or any of these things doesn’t work,” he explains, “but trying to enhance the sensory appeal could.” By making bugs sound extra crunchy with headphones, for example, chefs could draw attention away from the flavour towards other sensory qualities.

The Un-Instagramable Dish

“One cafe in Vietnam has already started to play sweet music at all times so they can add less sugar to their cakes and pastries,” Spence goes on, explaining how sounds could help make us healthier in other ways.

But not everyone is as convinced as Spence about tablets at the table. Ross McGinnes runs the popular Twitter account We Want Plates which documents – and mocks – restaurants who use shovels, tiles, boards, and mugs to plate up food. I ask him what he thinks of Spence’s idea:

“Food on iPads – another crackpot method which puts the emphasis on presentation rather than taste.

We pity the serving staff, having to peddle this stuff with a straight face: ‘I'm sorry but the squid starter isn't available – our chef's iPad charger cable is broken. I can recommend the crab cakes though, they’re served on a vintage Nintendo Donkey Kong.’

Madness.”

Regardless of the doubters, Spence’s work is far from over. He is also working towards high-tech augmented reality dining experiences. With his lab partner in Japan, for example, he has shown how wearing a virtual reality headset can change your experiences with food, from making your runny ketchup appear thicker to adding virtual creamer to your coffee. “Those visual appearances just change the expectation you have about your food and then hence your taste experience,” he explains. Virtual steam can make food seem hotter, unappetisingly green food can become a pleasant pink.

Still, Spence hopes his work will be accessible for everyone in the home (“some of the best technology around is in our pockets.”) So next time you serve your spag bol, why not use your iPad as a plate?

“The notion that you must not play with your food needs to be broken down,” says Spence, who admits it will take work for his vision to be implemented across the country. “Of course it raises some questions, probably a steak isn’t going to be easy to cut into… maybe it’s better for finger food or canapes.”

Charles Spence will be revealing more details of his project, The Un-Instagrammable Dish, during his London Food Tech Week keynote speech Playing Mind Games with Your Food on Tuesday October 31, 2017.

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

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