(Virtually) Real Beer Goggles
Innis & Gunn use digital technology to enhance the beer-drinking experience
If truth be told, it is a bit of a faff. Hamfistedly fitting my mobile phone inside a flap of a rectangular cardboard viewing box, getting headphones untangled and then fiddling around with volume settings and blurry lenses, I wasn't seamlessly immersing myself in a virtually real world. As a prelude to a beer drinking experience, I was wondering if the traditional analogue alternative wasn't just as good: a look around the pub and its clientele, an admiring glance at the barman's pint-pulling skills and a smack of the lips in anticipation of that first frothy sup.
While Edinburgh beer makers Innis & Gunn do like a wee bit of tradition, however, they were born from slicing through ancient brewing wisdom by putting fresh beer into old whisky casks, and they believe that their explorations of new dimensions in beer production lie at the centre of the company's DNA. Added to that, there's little doubt that innovation, adventure and technological advances are key features of the booming craft beer scene. By introducing 'Immersive & Gunn' VR headsets at their Beer Kitchen outlets in Edinburgh and Dundee as well as Tabac in Glasgow, Innis & Gunn are attempting to hitch a technological ride on a journey into new taste sensations. As you sip your beer (not a simple task when you've got your eyes jammed against a cardboard box) the wrap-around landscape playing on the screen of your phone inside the headset takes you from forests to sunsets to gently lapping waves, triggering the brain to focus on, in turn, the oak-aged tones in I&G's Original ale, its sunny sweetness and then the oceanic smoothness of the beer.
It's a project they've worked on with Dr Jacob Jolij, assistant professor in cognitive psychology and neuroscience at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. His work analyses influences on perception and cognition, understanding how, for example, an evocation of wide water landscapes can trigger the brain to focus on a beer's refreshing characteristics. This, he explains, then 'causes the brain to reinterpret signals from the mouth, telling the drinker that the pint tastes even smoother and more thirst quenching than they first thought.'
It's not just gamers but many in other branches of entertainment, music, sports, education and training who are getting excited about the possibilities of VR. Mark Zuckerberg was saying a couple of years ago that VR will become 'part of daily life for billions' – and he's put a couple of his own billions of dollars where his mouth is with Facebook's purchase of Oculus Rift, VR headset developers.
What VR has to offer the world of food and drink is less apparent at this stage, however, not least from the challenge that, of all our senses, taste and smell are the toughest for technology to penetrate convincingly.
Yet the study of neurogastronomy – what's going on in the brain while we eat, drink, anticipate and experience flavour – is itself a coming thing. The authors of the 2014 book The Perfect Meal gathered all the latest research into how so many different factors beyond the actual taste of the food influence how we perceive and process the flavours we experience, from the colour and shape of the plate to the weight of the cutlery we use. 'The search for the perfect meal,' they suggest, 'will be facilitated as much by knowing about the mind of the diner and what makes it tick as it will by gaining further insights into the physiology of the human flavour system or by sourcing the most seasonal of ingredients.'
A bit more straightforwardly, food writer Bee Wilson calls it the 'retsina effect', understanding how and why 'that resonated white wine that is so refreshing when sipped on a Greek island tastes of paint-stripper back home in the rain.'
Could a pair of VR beer – or retsina, for that matter – goggles pull off the trick? Innis & Gunn's slightly gimmicky cardboard box might not quite manage to transport you to a land where beer tastes oakier, sweeter and more refreshing, but make no mistake, it's a clear sign that brewers, chefs, mixologists and food manufacturers are out to play with your mind. The truth is that in the coming years they'll be doing it in ways more amazing and intriguing than a couple too many pints at 6.5%ABV has traditionally achieved.