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Virtual dining put to the test at ReThink Eating 2020

Foodies from all over the world gathered for the virtual ReThink Eating Conference 2020, which took place in the beginning of December. The interactive event concluded with an untraditional experimental conference dinner with an unusual cocktail of cheese tasting, storytelling, music and drawing.

The ReThink Eating Conference 2020, which took place in the beginning of December, brought together food-loving researchers and practitioners from all over the world with the same purpose: to generate new research ideas, collaborations and ultimately novel food experiences by brainstorming the future of eating across disciplines - and this was very successful.

Qian Janice Wang, Tenure-track Assistant Professor at the Department of Food Science, Aarhus University, hosted the conference as part of her Carlsberg Foundation Young Researcher Fellowship project "Virtual and augmented flavours", examining how technology can create novel eating experiences:

- ReThink Eating 2020 managed to unite more than 170 people from over 30 countries sharing a strong interest in food, but having a multitude of backgrounds - from computer science to anthropology - and this resulted in very interesting discussions in highlighting many aspects of our eating experiences. By learning from each other and taking a more holistic view on what it means to eat, we can create innovative novel eating experiences, she says.

The conference began with a keynote talk by famed experimental psychologist Charles Spence on bringing magical experiences into the dining room. The talk provided inspiration for conference participants to put their heads together and generate new ideas. There were six brainstorming workshops in three different tracks, covering topics such as the use of augmented reality and virtual reality as well as mechanical and digital haptics - that is any interaction involving touch - in the creation of eating experience. All participants came together in one final workshop, discussing the design of an ideal eating environment – a so-called food utopia.

The workshops were followed by a series of moderated interviews, where pairs of experts from diverse fields engaged in a guided dialogue around central topics in the digitalization of eating experiences. The topics included how to provide takeaway food without taking away the experience, how to socialize around the virtual table and how to deliver immersive experiences to remote consumers.

A conference dinner out of the ordinary

No conference is complete without a final conference dinner, and this was also the case at the ReThink Eating Conference 2020. But this one was a quite unusual one-of-the-kind dinner, featuring cheese tasting, storytelling, music and drawing as well as dinner partners sitting in different countries – thereby putting the idea of virtual dining just discussed to the test.

The dinner was hosted by PhD student Signe Lund Mathiesen, and it was more than just an activity during an entertaining conference day - it was actually an explorative research project with input from collaborators in Finland and Argentina:

- We wanted to find out what role technology can play in a COVID-19 situation, where we cannot easily get together. We wanted to see, how we can maintain the social cohesion of communal dining, but at the same time, we did not want to reproduce a real-life dinner event. We wanted to explore, what the digital world has to offer.

Cheese to the sound of music

Pieces of cheese used for sensory experiments at Turku University in Finland were distributed to participants in the Aarhus area and Finland, and a similar cheese was suggested to the other participants. In addition to this, all participants received a list of simple ingredients available anywhere in the world, such as olives, bread and wine. These were the food elements of the virtual dinner, but there were also several non-food elements contributing to this novel food experience:

- We started with a cheese tasting accompanied by three different pieces of music. Research suggests that our audio experiences can have a significant impact on our eating experiences. At the same time, participants received a link to a website with virtual whiteboards, where they were asked to express their experience visually, says Signe Lund Mathiesen.

In addition to this, the dinner experiment included two more activities. The participants had been asked to prepare a short story about their first memory of cheese and encouraged to bring background music to accompany their story. Breakout rooms were created with 3-5 people, sharing their stories and music. Following this, all participants were once again gathered in one meeting room and encouraged to talk freely to each other, giving the chaotic atmosphere of a large dinner event:

- Social eating experiences is a central part of our food culture, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, we miss socializing and connecting with each other. With the help of technology, we want to create a new virtual scene, where these needs can be met. The ReThink Eating 2020 conference dinner as an explorative project has given us new insights, which we can continue to develop in future virtual eating events, says Signe Lund Mathiesen. 

About the research project begind the conference dinner

Collaboration partnersAarhus University 
Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero, Argentina University of Turku, Finland 
FundingAarhus University Research Foundation funded the conference dinner. The rest of the conference was funded by Qian Janice Wang’s Carlsberg Foundation Young Researcher Fellowship project "Virtual and augmented flavours".
Conflicts of interestNone
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You can find more information about the ReThink Eating 2020, including the program and list of speakers, on the conference website here

ContactAssistant Professor Qian Janice Wang Department of Food Science, Aarhus University E-mail: qianjanice.wang@food.au.dk - Phone: +45 22319864 
PhD Student Signe Lund Mathiesen Department of Food Science, Aarhus University - E-mail: signelma@food.au.dk - Mobile: +4525772779