Imagine yourself relaxing on a beach, sipping a pina colada. Dozens of show goers enjoyed that experience right in the midst of IFT19 courtesy of the Virtual Reality Tasting Experience brought to the food expo floor by sensory science expert and Cornell University Associate Professor Robin Dando.
Dando, who is the director of the Sensory Evaluation Center at Cornell, set up the tasting experience to introduce the concept of sensory testing via virtual reality to a select group of attendees, who signed up to participate in virtual reality sessions that are taking place adjacent to the IFTNEXT stage throughout the course of the food expo. (Sessions are sold out.)
Participants donned a virtual reality headset and viewed a beach scene before being prompted to sample two nonalcoholic beverages: one pina cola–flavored and the other Bloody Mary– flavored. Those who took part seemed to enjoy it, Dando said, and as expected, most reported that they preferred the pina colada while virtually experiencing the beach scene.
Dando has been experimenting with the way in which the environment—or context—affects the sensory properties of food for some time, publishing an article detailing the results of his virtual reality experiments in the Journal of Food Science about 18 months ago. The idea that we like certain foods more in certain situations (think popcorn at a movie theater or a hot dog in a ballpark) was already a familiar concept, but Dando and his colleagues wanted to delve more deeply into it and explore the idea of bringing virtual reality into the sensory testing tool kit.
His initial virtual reality taste experiments involved having consumers sample blue cheese in three virtual scenarios: a conventional sensory booth as a control; on a park bench; and in the Cornell dairy barn. The idea was that the perceived pungency of the barnyard setting might influence consumers’ perception of the pungency of the cheese. And indeed consumers reported that the cheese tasted more pungent when they sampled it after virtually experiencing the barn setting.
A second experiment involved testing taste preferences for a high-end champagne and Miller beer and used two settings: an upscale winery and a not-so-upscale bar. Again as anticipated, consumers liked the wine more in the winery setting. They also liked the beer more in the bar setting, but not to a statistically significant degree, Dando said. They were willing to pay more for both the beer and wine in the winery setting.
Using virtual reality for sensory testing has the advantage of being relatively inexpensive and uncomplicated, according to Dando. Because of that, he sees potential for its use in the food industry. Dando is also interested in exploring the impact of environment on unhealthy food choices, noting that “if we understand why people make bad choices, maybe we can nudge them toward better decisions.” And, in fact, much of the research his sensory lab at Cornell conducts focuses on issues related to obesity.
Dando received assistance conducting the IFT19 Virtual Reality Experience from two food science students who work in his lab, Mingze Qin and Peiyuan Zhou.