A crisp white tablecloth. A half-filled wine glass. And views of two different oceans.
If you turn your head to the right from your restaurant seat you can see across the San Diego coastline and out over the Pacific. If you look straight ahead you can see the edges of the Atlantic as it meets the shore of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
This is “peak” virtual dinner party. You sit in San Diego with your significant other in front of an HD computer screen that carries a live stream of Rio’s moonlit seaside. Soon your dinner companions in Brazil will be seated at their table in Rio and will obscure your ocean view, but these are old friends and the company–even though they’re 6,000 miles away–is far more precious.
Thanks to the video conferencing webcam and microphone above that computer screen, you can see and hear each other as clearly as if you were physically seated across from them. And you can actually order food and drinks from the same menu, because these restaurants are paired in video conference symmetry.
This is a virtual dinner party, and not a distant fantasy, either. People are doing it today, and breaking bread with friends and strangers in other states and even other countries will only get more and more immersive as video conferencing technology improves.
News Ways of Dining
The video conferencing technology needed to stage this dinner party by the shores of two different oceans is readily available and affordable. The biggest expense a restaurateur would incur in offering virtual dining would be the flat screens needed to display the remote diners, and the wifi-enabled broadband connection to host each face-to-face conversation. Most quality video conferencing platforms, such as Skype and Zoom, offer a basic service for free, and HD-quality webcams with built-in microphones cost less than $100.
That’s the outlay if you want to pursue the complete face-to-face virtual dining experience, but there are other ways people are sharing meal across oceans. The simplest form currently being used is based around social media, particularly Twitter and Instagram. The magazine Food & Nutrition, for example, holds regular dinner parties where guests across dozens of remote sites simultaneously prepare healthy meals and share photos and videos from their parties online.
Similarly, in February hundreds of people worldwide dined at 350 different tables to share meals taken from the same cookbook. Again, they posted live images from their feasts via social media.
Finally, and more adventurously, a restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark, last year began giving its customers virtual reality headsets to wear during their meal. The headsets played a 45-minute-long audio and visual display designed to complement and accentuate the food. It sounds like an intriguing experience, apart from one detail–the glasses remove your view of the real world, meaning you must be spoon-fed by the waiting staff.
Possibly the most convenient and social method of virtual dining, however, is being offered by the Singapore Tourism Board.
The Virtual Dinner Party by Video Conference
In February, the Singapore body sponsored a free night of international virtual dining, pairing diners in Singapore with ones almost 4,000 miles away in Sydney, Australia. Eight tables of diners in each country were seated in front of video conferencing systems to enjoy identical menus prepared in each kitchen. This is the classic video conference setup you’d use in your office, or at home, but twisted into service as a unique dining experience.
To create a similar experience you can deploy your webcams and screens to suit whatever shape your virtual dinner takes. You could opt for the traditional horseshoe-shaped design, where a group is spread out around the setting with the screen and camera at the head of the table. Or, you could follow the lead of smaller huddle room technologies and gather around a 360-degree field of vision. Or, you could simply sit before a single screen and webcam and talk one-on-one–probably the way to go if your virtual dinner is an online first date.
In general, though, these setups still pose the same problem video conferencing has long grappled with–allowing true eye contact. There may, however, be a solution in the rapidly evolving realm of augmented reality video calling.
Augmented Reality Dining
It takes practice to make eye contact during a video call. The webcam that captures your gaze and the screen that conveys your friend’s eyes are on different levels, which can make an intimate social event like dinner awkward.
Here’s how augmented reality, the ability to project computer-generated images onto a real-world view, could make things easier.
Firstly, get the computer screens off the dining table.
Next, build on the Copenhagen idea above and don a pair of virtual reality glasses. But these ones are going to be transparent, so you can see the world around you…including the food on your plate.
Now, project the incoming view from the camera at the remote restaurant onto the VR glasses. These images can be pinned to a geographical place so your fellow diners will only come into view when you look at the empty seats across the table where they should be seated.
Finally, place your webcam on top of the empty seat, at eye level so you can look right into your dinner companion’s eyes (or at least where they would be). You won’t see this camera once your goggles are on, because the augmented images will cover it and the empty chair.
It’s like dinner via Pokemon Go, the smartphone game that swept the country last year. Now you can see everything around you in a natural light, even though your dinner companions–be they old friends, business partners or clients, family members celebrating a birthday, a first date, or just a random stranger at an exotic location–are half a world away.