Kenton O’Hara

Technology and Dining in Context

Unbenannt4Kenton O’Hara is a Researcher at Microsoft Research Labs, Cambridge and a Visiting Professor at the University of Bristol. His research explores everyday practices and social behaviours relating to mobile and ubiquitous computing. He has written about the socio-cultural context of dining and eating and its implications for designing new technologies to support this. Below he reflects on the new ideas and questions raised during the workshop in relation to technology intervention.

I was fascinated by Charles Spence’s various demonstrations around the constructed nature of taste perceptions and the influence of other senses on our interpretation of taste.  Such effects seem to be both disconcerting and liberating.  What is intriguing is how subtle these effects often are – of which we are often not even necessarily aware.  Indeed when they are revealed one can feel a little foolish that our senses have somehow been duped.  But once one accepts the constructed nature of our taste perception it is liberating. It opens a much richer space within which to consider all sorts of technical and non-technical intervention.

The subtlety of these effects raises a more general consideration – the extent to which any interventions we might make are foregrounded and backgrounded.  Do they take the focus away from the food? If so, how does that impact on the taste? It is not clear there is a singular prescriptive principle but rather an important dimension to consider. Much of technology can be in your face and so the idea of more subtle design interventions is interesting to consider.

Another concern is authenticity. Why is it that some interventions feel real and acceptable whereas others seem fake leaving you feeling like you have had the wool pulled over your eyes? I was also struck by how subtle interventions in wine tasting can have such a marked effect on the taste of the wine. Again, it seems that the contingent nature of taste can be affected by so many potential factors that can strongly influence taste outcomes. The underlying physical explanations (multisensory integration) for these influences opens up all sorts of possibilities for how technology and artefact design might be used to impact on the physical behaviour of food and drink.

A lasting memory from the workshop was Ben Spalding’s signature  ‘chicken on a brick’ dish that was served at dinner. Chicken liver cream with lingon berries, crispy chicken skin and sweet corn was smeared over a house brick coated in a hardened caramel. The brick dish has been the key experience that I have shared with others after the event and indeed was the only one that I actually recorded in any form.  Importantly, its not the taste that I can remember here as being particularly exceptional.   But as an experience it was a great talking piece both in the moment and after. The brick affords licking. It flies in the face of so many things that we come to expect. It feels dirty to eat off a brick, it feels rude to lick your food off a surface but as a consequence it feels good and fun.  While there may be inherent material reasons for using a brick, its what it reveals about the whole physical behaviour it encourages, and how these can be very enjoyable.  This also makes you think about the importance of context in defining dining experiences.  Unusualness, novelty and distinctiveness seem to be important components. These make me think about the lifetime of any particular technology interventions and to what extent continuous change and reinvention is as important as any inherent values of a relationship between food and technology.

Unbenannt3Another memorable food experience was watching the chef cook in front of us.  What was most compelling was bringing the kitchen to the dining table revealing what is normally hidden.  It was more than providing extra information or a compelling visual spectacle. There was a lovely openness and honesty about the presentation, revealing of the chef’s identity and passion for food.  It felt very personal to be cooked for in this way.  I think there is something important in this in the way that we might reveal aspects of ourselves and our relationships with others through what we are able to do together with food and technology.

Finally, I want to mention some of the simpler personalisation possibilities that we can have with food, using barcodes, digital augmentations and other personal decorations – that are made possible through technology.  How to use it to best effect – to make food presentation and creation fun and customizable.  This approach is promising because it starts to articulate other kinds of food experiences beyond the more traditional restaurant ‘eating schemas’ that can be easy to fall back on. Indeed, it is the diversity of food experiences that makes it quite difficult to have a cohesive set of reflections. I think the workshop began to point to some of this diversity but I think this diversity of settings, occasions and values around food experiences is something that we really need to think much more about.