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I was looking the future of food in the eye. Or, rather it was looking at me: goggles in a big, box-like headset, along with a set of earphones and a cursor; these were all accompaniments for a food tasting at the CIA at Copia’s annual conference, reThink Food. We were going to experience a virtual reality dining experience.

Over three days at the CIA, Nov. 7-9, we got a glimpse of projects from around the world that are examining, directing and changing what and how we will eat in the future. We heard about research at MIT, UC Davis and Stanford; we were served by robotic waiters carrying desserts on their flat-tray heads at reception hosted by Google.

Established, giant food companies described their mad dash to catch up with fast-moving entrepreneurs. One corporation had even rented an unheated warehouse for employees to try to recreate the innovative spirit and come up with cool artisan pizza. A speaker called it, “Teaching Goliath to Use a Slingshot.”

Whereas the big guys’ motivation might be not to lose out on profits, there are also an inspiring number of people spearheading international collaborations to figure out how to feed, not just the wealthy few, but everyone well, and preserve the home planet, too.

Among them is Sarah Roversi, the founder of the Future Food Institute, an Italian-based nonprofit, “with global horizons that aims to build a more equitable world.” The website notes, “Food is a global language and a driver for global economic prosperity. Food is also a catalyst for change, and food players are often pioneers that are responsible for more than just the bottom line; their choices can have tremendous impacts on human health and world sustainability.”

Roversi asks, “So how do we face the urgent issues of creating a more sustainable future of food while understanding technology’s role in closing the gaps in our food system? The key is knowledge and education, the cornerstone of innovation.”

The headset and earphones were part of a seminar titled “Using Virtual Reality to Enhance Dining Experiences.” This was a thoughtful presentation by Jenny Dorsey, a chef and founder of Studio ATAO, who is exploring ways to share her own journey as an an Asian-American chef. She has created animated, virtual reality videos to accompany a six-course meal.

To view the videos required donning a headset that looked like something you’d wear if you were a Navy SEAL on a top-secret rescue mission. Over this, we attached earphones, and only once these were in place did I realize I was, thus, unable to see to locate the cursor that was necessary for the whole show. Trying to peak under the headset caused the whole contraption to spring off my head, and it was back to step one. I am sure a Navy SEAL would have gotten to the presentation much faster.

Once successfully assembled, the headset began to unfold a poetic, animated story about the dish we were going to eat. But then — oh no! — the images started sliding off the screen, disappearing to the right. I took the equipment off again to ask if I were doing something wrong with the cursor. No, it turned out that the video was unfolding in a 360-degree circle, and we were supposed to spin our chairs to see it all; and this was another challenge for those not-so-adept at managing life with a box on the head.

Finally, it was time to taste the dish. But first we had to take all the equipment because, as chef Dorsey admitted, they weren’t confident that people would be able to combine virtual reality with the real thing and find the food, let alone navigate it up their mouths. Surely, a wise decision.

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After all the build-up, the spinning in chairs and blindly flailing about with cursors, eating the noodles, served in a jar, was a bit of an anti-climax. We tried three of the six courses in this fashion, and while it was an interesting adventure, I had to wonder: what if the chef had just told us the stories in the old-fashioned story-teller way?

The final day of the conference was devoted to robots and the role they will play in the future of food. Two films were particularly memorable. In one animated sequence, a man was in a room furnished with a dining table and a long, smooth, completely plain bar. He instructed the bar: “There will be two additional guests for dinner.” It opened up magically, and all sorts of tools began to cook, peeling potatoes, basting a fowl and cooking a soup with a heated whisk.

Guests arrived and sat down at the table. A little robot sprang out of the multi-talented bar and darted about serving drinks. The man presided over the arrival of the dishes: Most prominent was a turkey on a platter; and a strange, futuristic moment evoked Norman Rockwell: It was a Thanksgiving dinner. The man did carve the turkey himself.

Lest anyone in the process of getting ready for Thursday’s feast contemplate this vision of Thanksgiving wistfully, I should mention that the presenter of this film emphasized that this was just a fantasy, still far from reality.

The real state of robots was demonstrated by a video from Carnegie-Mellon University, a leader in robot research. It showed today’s human-style robots experiencing difficulties. No C-3PO here. They crashed about, falling forwards, sideways and backwards. They tripped over nothing, fell down stairs, and one, when handed a drill, keeled over and dropped it on itself. One could only think, thank goodness no one was trying to make the poor robots put on headsets and earphones at the same time.

Yet from this fascinating, far-reaching look at the future, came a surprisingly optimistic sense that a great many brilliant people are really trying to figure out how to feed 10 billion people and still preserve our little blue and green planet. Meanwhile, we still have to peel our own potatoes and baste our own Thanksgiving turkey.

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Features Editor

Sasha Paulsen has been features editor at the Napa Valley Register since 1999. A graduate of Napa High School, she studied English at UC Berkeley and St. Mary's College and earned a Masters in Journalism from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.