We all know it’s coming—the headsets that connect us with enchanting worlds that seem so real we’ll never leave our chairs. But in the restaurant business the question is how. The old saying rings true: “You still gotta eat.”

Dave & Buster’s announced earlier this year that virtual reality might be the answer to its declining earnings. The arcade-for-adults restaurant said it would release a proprietary VR platform mid-year. Prior to that, an Oracle study from 2017 revealed that VR tours enhance and improve hospitality bookings and that hotel operators believe the technology will be widespread by 2025 for training staff and entertaining guests.

This type of VR use has a long history in other lines of business, such as medical, technical and machine-driven industries, says Jenny Dorsey, a chef and consultant who specializes in VR and its use in the food industry. Dorsey sees training as the best ROI case for VR in restaurants right now.

But beyond that, it’s becoming clearer how VR might combine with the central core of the restaurant business: food.

After a study at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab was released earlier this year, it looks like what and how much consumers eat can be affected by the VR experience if scent is at play. In the study, 101 participants interacted with a donut in a virtual environment. Participants who could smell and touch the donut ate significantly fewer donuts than those who were not exposed to scent and touch cues. They also reported higher satiety.

And that’s the dream, isn’t it? For consumers anyway. To eat anything without regret. That’s even the slogan for Project Nourished, a gastronomical VR experience born out of Los Angeles think tank Kokiri Lab. The experience combines 3D printed food with various VR devices. The project website says it hacks “vision, gustation, olfaction, audition and touch—with or without caloric intake.”

It will take something like this completely immersive experience to actually get customers interested in VR, and willing to pay for it, Dorsey says.

“Making the entire experience seamless between the headset and eating is still a big challenge,” Dorsey says. Her own project, which paired 360-degree video with three courses of food and cocktails in Nicaragua, is an enjoyable format but still leaves diners wanting. “People enjoy that, but there needs to be something more to keep them super excited as VR becomes more commonplace.”

Feature, Technology