above: image of a dinner i missed Tangibly, but experienced visually thanks to my tech-savvy dad mailing the digital image.Pie Video
eating together is a common human thing. being able to lean over and try a bit of what your loved one is having, or stealing fries without asking- an expression of personality. you can learn about a person from how much food he leaves on his plate. how willing she is to share her precious cake. whether she likes the mushroom sauce that you made. two nights ago i split pie with my grandmother. you are watching footage of this if you are viewing the attached movie file.
an old friend and i have a tea drinking ritual- brew the water, sink the beads of dry tea to the bottom of a deep mug, lean our faces over the steam and inhale, watching the beads unfold into long, curly jasmine scented leaves. We are silent as we test the water temperature, and test the strength of the tea. Familiar expressions communicate whether we feel it is satisfactory, no words are required. It is possible to sense the relaxation of another person, by their brow - lids half closed, smooth muscles in the forehead, eyebrows unclenched.
we also have cooking rituals. when carla made her marinara sauce, i’d climb up onto the windowsill of the kitchen, bracing myself on the ceiling and leaning down to taste the sauce off the spoon she’d hold up. we would critique. carla would add more herbs. a few weeks ago, from across the atlantic, i had a craving not for the sauce, but for those moments. i asked her to email me the recipe, and as i prepared the sauce, i spoke to carla on the phone. i didn’t bother to describe the sauce. it would not have been sufficient, there was no point. this is the current state of the art as far as i know.
is there a way to communicate the smell, taste and texture? the temperature of cold ice cream or hot sauce? the dynamics and navigation of a single piece of banana cream pie between me and grandma?
a video screen would be a start. what if there was a ball I could drop into my sauce, that would measure temperature and take video images? carla could have a networked bowl on the other side. a nice comforting wooden bowl, filled with water. an image of my sauce could be projected from below onto the water, making it look like sauce, or projecting an image of my sauce pouring out of a spoon. the outsides of the bowl could warm up to the right temperature. Smell is crucial. I am uncertain whether there is currently technology that allows a smell to be fabricated on the other side. Maybe if I trapped some sauce in a bottle, and mailed it...
case studies: see above text
a cup of tea
* an expression of trust: an agreement to share germs, and precious food resource- tastier food can make a more impressive sharing experience
* a shared intimate sensual experience: everyone who shares is having the same intimate sensual (literally- warm or cold, different textures) experience, together, at the same time
* relaxing social experience: things like steamy ginger tea or velvety chocolate mousse are relaxing. its like having a massage in the same room with friends who are also getting a massage. i’ve never done that but i’d like to...
* this relaxing activity makes it socially acceptable to enjoy a moment of silence
* it is a Universal thing. everyone eats, and eats socially. it can connect anyone who happens to be randomly eating together.
* you can determine mood and personality by someone’s eating styles and preferences
* sharing a single batch of food requires navigation and cooperation (see video)
So what should be simulated then, to get this experience over distance?
its impossible to replace the charming intimacy of sharing food in real life, together with people in the same space.
* the smell of the food. we all know how powerful smell is.
* steam rising from the food, or frost or dew around a glass. more shared sensory stimulus.
* the texture of the food: soup, bread, ice cream. they’ve all got their own special texture and feel.
* temperature. again, shared relaxing, sensory experience.
* taste: hazelnuts in chocolate, mint tea, a fried egg on toast. i’ll say no more.
* sharing a single physical object or batch of food: each dish is unique, a once in a lifetime chance. and you must cooperate to peacefully consume it.
Solution: how to make it happen remotely
* one person cooks, talks about it over the phone or IM, describing how it tastes and is coming out (ref. case study: making carla’s sauce from across the Atlantic)
* both people cook over the phone, agreeing upon a dish and ingredients, and talking over a phone, video conference or IM to coordinate and compare notes.
these first two are a pain because you drop the phone or drip sauce on the keyboard. for tea its ok.
* video or still images of dinner, to at least share in the visual joy and imagine the rest. (see inserted image: my father mailed me a picture of a dinner I missed.)
* wiring up a comforting wooden bowl or nice mug to the network with a temperature sensor and to a similar object in your friend’s house. they can sense how warm your mug is, or the reverse. also, add a visual layer: an underwater web cam records my tea leaves unfolding and inking dark tea into the water, and the projector in the bottom of my friend’s teacup projects the image onto the surface of her water.