Part chef, part entrepreneur, all innovator, Jenny Dorsey has become to go-to expert in the intersection of augmented and virtual reality. When Smart Kitchen Summit founder Michael Wolf spoke with her on our podcast last year, he called her “foremost authority on the nexus point between AR/VR and food.”
So of course we invited Dorsey to speak about it on stage at SKS. To whet your palate, we asked her a few questions to discover more about what exactly we have to look forward to in culinary future — virtual and otherwise.
Want to learn more? Make sure to get your tickets to SKS on October 8-9th to see Jenny Dorsey talk about how augmented and virtual reality will change the way we eat.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
Q: What drew you to explore AR and VR through food, something seemingly very separate and disconnected?
A: It is the strangest story. I went to acupuncture in the spring of 2017 totally confused about what I wanted to do with my life and art. I had this random idea pop into my head at acupuncture that I should focus on AR and VR…which I literally knew nothing about. I went home to my husband and he just said, “Okay, I support you…but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Fast forward a year, and I’ve been experimenting with different ways to merge these various things together. I’ve learned a lot about what doesn’t work (eating with headsets on) and what makes people prone to distraction (AR apps), but I also found some pretty awesome ways to communicate and strengthen my food through AR/VR. For instance, I hosted a tasting event in Nicaragua where we profiled three different types of Nicaraguan agricultural staples using 360° video, then served guests both headsets and the final tasting menu after they watched — and learned — the seed-to-harvest process of these ingredients. It was really educational, fun (for many, it was their first time in VR!) and the process added some extra meaning to the food and drink we prepared.
Our next big thing is a series called “Asian in America”, which explores the Asian American identity through a symbolic meal, paired with a stroke-by-stroke Tilt Brush recreation of each dish for viewers to watch, while listening to the symbolic explanations, before eating. (You can see more about both of those events over at Studio ATAO.)
Q: Tell us about your experimental pop-up series, Wednesdays.
A: Wednesdays started in January 2014 as a personal creative outlet while I was working in a restaurant and feeling pretty burned out. At the time, my then-boyfriend, now-husband was still in business school (where we met) and I remember us commiserating on how hard it was to get to really know people around us. He was interested in making cocktails, and we thought: why don’t we host a dinner party? We wanted to create an environment where people would be comfortable enough to be themselves and be vulnerable around others.
We hosted a beta-series of dinners with friends for the first month, then we started getting strangers coming to the table to eat, which prompted us to say “Hey, maybe we are onto something”. Fast forward 4 ½ years and we’ve hosted hundreds of dinners for thousands of guests across New York City and San Francisco, been written up in many major food media outlets, and usually sell out in 30 minutes or less!
We aren’t your average dinner party — we do ask a lot from our guests. There’s mandatory questions to answer before you even purchase your ticket (everything from “What’s your biggest failure and how has it motivated you?” to “Are you in the job you want? If not, how are you getting there?”), lots of bizarre things to eat and drink when you arrive (like bugs!) and direct, in-your-face realness from me, my husband and our team. There’s no small talk. It’s not for everyone, but for the people who follow us I think it’s really what they are looking for.
Q: What’s the coolest/craziest way you’ve seen technology changing the food system? Blow our mind!
A: I’m currently very interested in how blockchain could help the food system. Seeds & Chips just put out a call for blockchain influencing the egg supply chain, so I’m really excited to see what different companies come up with. I also spent some time at a winery last year and was amazed to see they have drones which tell them literally when and which plot of vineyards to pick for a certain Brix (sugar) count in that specific grape. That sort of detailed information would’ve taken constant field-walks to ascertain years ago.
There’s also technology that will calculate exactly how much food waste your restaurant generates in a week/month/year, AND a system that will turn that waste into compost. While technology has done a lot in terms of streamlining of our food system, I’m still waiting for it to solve some of the biggest issues we face today: a living wage, worker rights, consistency and training, preventing food waste, educating consumers, etc. — pieces that require more politics and facetime. Overall, we still have lots of work to do!
Q: How do you see AR/VR — and technology in general — shaping the future of food?
A: I still stand by the major points in my TechCrunch article from late last year. I think the biggest areas of impact will be food products (CPG) and how they are marketed — both experientially (through VR), but also packaging (through AR).
In terms of restaurants, I just wrote a piece about VR training, which I do think will be a fantastic and hugely influential piece of the technology — but it really needs to come down in price point first.
Overall, I think artists and creators are still getting acclimated to how this technology works and what they can do it with. I hope to see AR/VR become almost an expected point of interaction or engagement between food business (product, service or restaurant) and the customer as we continue finding artistry in it.
Q: What’s your desert island food or dish?
A: I feel I should say something cold, because I would be hot, but most likely I would be craving pho. LOL!