Photo: Open Meals

When I first heard internet murmurings that a company had figured out a way to teleport sushi, I immediately thought of one of my favorite childhood films: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. (The old version, not the new one with creepy Johnny Depp.)

Near the end of the movie, Wonka gives his diminishing troupe of children a tour of the factory’s teleporting technology, which has the power to “beam” you a chocolate bar through your T.V. As a chocolate lover and a T.V. lover, I was smitten. But I assumed that this technology would probably never become a reality, at least outside of Wonka.

How happy I am to be wrong!

A Japanese company called Open Meals premiered their “sushi teleportation” technology at SXSW2018, conducting what they call “the world’s first food data transmission.” In the demonstration, sushi that was designed in Tokyo was printed, via Open Meals’ Pixel Food Printer, in Austin, TX.

Their sushi currently prints in 5-millimeter blocks, giving the results a pixellated look straight out of an 80’s video game. However, they hope to reduce the size to 1-millimeter blocks, which would give the food a more organic, realistic appearance.

This demonstration was just the beginning of Open Meals’ plan to transform the way that food is created and transported. Eventually, Open Meals hopes to be able to transmit ingredients and whole dishes, using data and something that their website calls “Social Food Network Services.” They want to usher in what they dub the “fifth food revolution,” whose hallmarks are the “digitalization, transmission, and re-generation of food.”

Open Meals’ Pixel Food Printer isn’t the only 3D food printer out there; there’s also the Foodini and Dovetailed, and scientists at Carnegie Mellon recently came up with a way to DIY a 3D bioprinter. But its approach is unique. Instead of using food paste in a canister, sugar, or liquid as its medium, their machine (patent pending) uses data to set exact specifications to mimic the nutrients, color, texture, and flavor of a specific food, which it then adds to a gel pixel. The robotic arm “prints” this customized gel into a miniature 3D cube, which it stacks to reproduce the appearance of the food its replicating.

Open Meals’ Pixel Food Printer

The sushi demonstration was certainly flashy, but in my opinion the real potential for Open Meals’ vision lies in its Food Base project.

Their digital food platform allows users to search, upload, download, and share data, such as taste, texture, nutrient composition, and color/shape, for specific ingredients or dishes. They can then send that specific food’s data profile up to their connected Pixel Food Printer, which will recreate it.

Open Meals hopes to source data from Michelin-star restaurants, home cooks, television shows, and even food-themed art to populate its database.

Obviously we have a long way to go before we reach a time when digitized, teleported food is feasible on a large scale. You would never mistake Open Meals’ “transported” sushi for the real thing, and apparently the taste was nowhere near bluefin tuna or prawn.

But the implications of what they’re doing is huge, way beyond just a cool-looking trick for SXSW. OpenMeals wants to digitize food like Apple and others digitized music, democratizing it — at least for those who can afford its Pixel Food Printer. (The machine is currently a prototype, but if mass marketed will no doubt fetch a pretty penny.)

Open Meals’ digital food database.

Extrapolating from the claims on Open Meals’ website, a future with digitized, printable food could:

  • Allow for carefully calibrated meals for people with illnesses like diabetes, or athletes with restrictive diets. This could become especially popular as demand for personalized diets is on the rise.
  • Provide on-demand, nutritious food to disaster areas or combat zones where farming infrastructure is weak. That is, assuming the printed food and its corresponding 3D bioprinters would ever be affordable enough for disaster relief organizations to purchase in bulk.
  • Preserve traditional dishes, from cultural hallmarks to mom’s beef stroganoff recipe. Because we all know how hard it is to make food exactly like mom does.
  • Replicate elaborate dishes from cooking shows, so you can eat along with the T.V. (Way better than Smell-O-Vision.)
  • Help lab-grown meat mimic the texture of bluefin tuna or ribeye steak.
  • Be beamed into space so that astronauts can enjoy a wide variety of meals without having to pack a lot of heavy food. This is especially intriguing as NASA gears up for the 2030 mission to Mars. 

Open Meals hasn’t given a timeline for their goals to digitize the future of food. Until they do, I’ll just have to keep dreaming of the taste of a teleported chocolate bar.

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