Don't Play With Your Food...
Or Should You?

Food and drink vending machines, food that reacts when you bite it, tapping into the time you wait for a meal. What exactly is going on in the world of interactive food?

Hilary McNevin

Ice cream that sings, yes, it’s a thing, and on a Tuesday evening in Collingwood people start to gather in Worksmith to find out more about this tuneful dairy dessert. The platters of cheese, bread, antipasti are set down one side of the room and on the other, the bar is hectic with the Worksmith team scooping ice and pouring cocktails and wines. It's the final Worksmith Community Talk of the year and we’re ending on some mind-bending ideas tapping into technology and food. 

This discussion on Interactive Food was supported by the Australian Research Council, between Monash University and Exertion Games Lab, a research lab exploring new boundaries of human-AI interactions, based at Monash. It sought to combine research in interactive technology with hospitality expertise to advance Australia’s hospitality industry and explore, what does interactive food mean and how can it help advance the hospitality industry? 

The panel discussion looked at our complex and personal relationships with food, steeped in memory, flavour, nutrition and nostalgia, as well as tackling the connection and impact technology has on customer experience. 

Hospo consultant and podcaster, Shaun de Vries moderated the panel which included: 

  • Leon Kennedy, the recently appointed CEO of @themulberrygroup and previously @proudmarycoffee;

  • Liam Wilkie a freelance Design Engineer with a focus on UX and a history in hospitality, he's also the creator of the robot barista of @oncealike; and

  • Dr. Rohit Khot, the Director of the HAFP Research Lab and Senior Research Fellow in the School of Design, working with the Design and Creative Practice ECP at @rmituniversity.

 “Eating isn’t just about satisfying our appetite,” says Rohit Khot, “but is about the social experience that comes with eating together. Australia is a leader in embracing new tech in hospitality and we want to help the Australian hospitality industry become a leader in interactive food experiences.”

Leon Kennedy adds, “There is a stigma attached to hospitality and tech. Hospitality is deemed really bad at managing tech but I don’t think that’s right. You’ve got a group of people trying to improve their business in the smallest way every day and tech plays a part in that.” 

From l-r, Shaun De Vries, Leon Kennedy, Dr. Rohit Khot, Liam Wilkie.

From ordering systems to point-of-sale machines, to stocktake, tech has been utilised in hospo for a long time, but with the staffing crisis and an ever-changing world with ever-changing needs, will we need to rethink service and tech? 

“Hospitality marketing more tailored to the end consumer would be great!” says Leon, “what happens is that the customers don’t want to embrace tech, then it’s hard. That’s where the gap is.” 

The panel talked about the fact that at the airport – for example – the public don't have a choice but to accept the technology of check-in and bag checks, but if that happened overnight in your local café or restaurant, without notice, there would be uproar. 

They agree this wouldn’t happen suddenly in hospitality – but – how can tech be introduced in a way it’s slowly accepted. 

The coffee industry is constantly looking to tech to evolve and keep customers engaged. 

Coffee automation is coming in slowly but surely to the broader industry and driven by labour and cost but also about safety. 

“Anyone who’s made 1000 coffees a day knows it’s exhausting and doing it everyday is not good for your body,” says Liam Wilkie who designed the robot barista of @oncealike,“so automation can be considered a safety issue for staff.” 

But he says how people expect coffee to be served and the processes you go through, “are really really important.” Enhancing the café experience within an automated system is the hard part mostly because of the people factor.

People like to be served by people, it’s the human connection, but there are times when people just want a good cup of coffee regardless of service and this is where automation and vending machines are being widely embraced as a solid solution for serving customers outside of business hours. In fact, vending machines are widely used in countries around the world for a variety of food and drinks services; Australia is slow to jump on board this trend, but it may be time. 

Whether it’s the vending machine after-hours or sitting at a table in a restaurant, the essence of the transaction is to bring food/drink and consumers together. 

“My relationship with food, it is personal,” says Dr Khot, “food is something that you consider, that you think about and it effects how you feel socially mentally and spiritually.”

Leon Kennedy says, “So, the question is, how do we blend hospo and tech to make the experience better, and better is the operative word.” He again goes back to the consumer as a vital part of the decision-making process, “If you don’t consider every stakeholder – what do your customers want – when you’re making change, you might end up one of those places making deconstructed lattes,” he adds. 

And, as you consider change, Dr Khot asks us to consider time. “The time you spend waiting for an order at home to be delivered or at a café, you always have to wait and we’re looking into tech that can make that waiting a positive thing.” 

He wants to bring play and fun into the forefront of dining, and create joy in experience using tech, which brings us back to the singing ice cream. The Exertion Games Lab have designed ice cream that can “sing”. The ‘We Scream’ is a social interactive ice cream experience. Thanks to technologically augmented ice cream cones, you take a bite of the ice cream, and the cone makes a musical sound that can only make you smile. 

It’s about creating awareness of the joy of eating, stopping for a moment and bringing playful childhood memories to those who are enjoying it. The Games Lab want to challenge the idea of what the future of food looks and sounds like. 

So, will we get on board with broader offerings in vending machines, will we start playing games or create art with our friends while we’re waiting for our food (it could be better than being on our phones…) and will we start seeking out food that reacts to us bite it and plays music to make us feel good? 

It's all part of a bright and delicious future that will continue to build on the simple fact that people are at hospitality’s core, and enhancing those people’s experiences will always be what makes hospo sing. 

Let’s get to work.

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