August’s Lunch & Learn session was one about which I was especially excited: Dovetailed, a Cambridge-based UX studio and innovation lab, was to come and give a talk and live demo of 3D-printing. Big whoop, some of you more cynical Tesco colleagues may cry: ‘3D printing’s been around for ages – we all know you can 3D-print plastic dolls in your own likeness, and other stuff of questionable usefulness.’
Fair enough, I’d say – except that these guys don’t print plastic stuff: they print fruit…edible fruit!
The concept began from work that Gabriel, Dovetail’s Chief Innovator, had done at Oxford for his dPhil: using a 3D printer to create mimics of biological tissue without using living cells. However, another use for this technology soon emerged. Gabriel says: “The aim of the project was to print something that behaved a bit like a tissue, but personally, when I saw these things, I thought, ‘they look delicious!’”.
Gabriel saw many similarities between the structures he’d created, and fruit. His creations were composed of water droplets separated by very thin membranes – almost like soap bubbles, with a very thin film between them.
An orange, for example, is also made of lots of liquid compartments separated by thin membranes – not quite as thin as his 3D-printed creations, but nevertheless, the structure was similar.
The rest was history. Gabriel decided to apply his experience with 3D-printing liquids, combine it with a different science – molecular gastronomy – and create edible things using a 3D printer. Heston, eat your heart out! Gabriel uses a technique called reverse spherification to create layers of jelly-like structures, one on top of the other, that stick together to form a 3D structure.
You can customise the colour, nutritional content, texture, flavour and shape of these creations, and this technology could be applied much more widely than just within the food industry. You could use it to create personalised make-up; perfumes; easy-to-take supplements or medication for the elderly, or children…and I bet the cocktail bars in Chelsea would lap this up.
‘Sweet sugar pie’
Vaiva, founder of dovetailed.co, also talked to us about how you can change the way people experience food and drink – for example their perceived taste – through technology. She used her stamp system as an example: she simply stamps QR codes onto coffee-shop napkins which, when you scan them with your phone, plays music that makes the coffee you’re drinking seem sweeter – without resorting to unhealthy sugar.
Vaiva also introduced the idea of using laser technology to ‘print’ information on fruit and vegetables, reducing packaging and keeping the customer informed at the same time. For example, not only could you put things like cooking instructions or best before dates on an aubergine, but you could also provide the customer with data about the fruit – its nutritional values, provenance etc.
‘Push it real good’
The final treat Dovetailed had to show us, was their trolley handle add-on. After conducting market research, they concluded that a lot of people felt overwhelmed by choice when shopping in supermarkets. So, they designed a device that clips onto the trolley handle (thus letting the shopper push the trolley as usual), which has a barcode scanner in it. The customer simply scans the product to get information on that product that isn’t usually instantly available, at a glance – and what’s more, the information is personalised.
You scan a card to tailor the results before setting off. So, for example, you could say you’re interested in food mileage, or that you have a nut allergy and wish to be alerted to products containing nuts.
So, when you scan a pack of beef, for example, the more LEDs that light up, the further the meat has travelled to the store. If the product contains nuts, then an unhappy face will appear on the screen. You can even have a running tally of how healthy your trolley is: the scanner can keep track of the amount of salt, fat etc. per portion in your trolley, and can tell you how well you’re doing on average.
Do you think 3D printing your dinner instead of cooking it is the future? Do you think this technology is something that supermarkets could – and should – be exploring? Tweet your thoughts to @TescoLabs
To watch Gabriel and Vaiva present all their inventions, go here.