It’s another busy day at Expo 2020 in the bustling Middle Eastern metropolis of Dubai. Many in the crowd are enjoying the warm Arabian winter weather. But one group of visitors can’t wait to get out of the sunshine. They want to enter a dark enchanted forest that’s almost half a world away and explore it, virtually.
They’ve come to the Expo’s New Zealand pavilion for an augmented reality show that promises to set a new standard in consumer food marketing and education.
The experience plays upon their senses of sight and sound to help them identify and understand the complexity of tastes of Mānuka, a type of pure native forest honey that is celebrated around the globe for its health benefits, organic goodness and sustainable origins.
New Zealand company and a global leader in Mānuka honey, Comvita has come to Dubai to win over new customers.
The magic begins
The experience starts like this. Each audience member sits in front of a tray with two samples of honey, a tasting spoon and a palate-cleansing glass of sparkling water.
They each put on a HoloLens 2 headset as the lights go down and the magic begins.
Suddenly, a life-size beehive hanging from a native New Zealand punga tree appears from out of the darkness. A 3D virtual beekeeper arrives and guides them through a lush primeval setting.
A swarm of bees buzzes around the room, searching for indigenous Mānuka shrubs with tiny delicate pink and white flowers full of nectar.
Now it’s time to start tasting. The natural accents of each honey’s taste profile float around the guests to help them identify the flavors they can sense — apricot, toffee, marshmallow and others.
To add a little extra wonder, HoloLens makes the tasting spoon leave a trace of sparkles in the air when it’s dipped into a honey pot – just like a magic wand.
The Comvita HoloLens show was put together by New Zealand design agency, Blur the Lines.
Its founder and creative director, Danielle Barclay says the agency has created “an emotional experience” that connects a participant’s mind with their taste buds.
Two years ago, Comvita and Blur the Lines built a multi-sensory honey-tasting center, called a “Wellness Lab,” in New Zealand’s most populous city, Auckland.
“That space was designed to emulate the purity of the product – all white textures to allow the honey to shine, with an undulating acoustic ceiling. We had to incorporate three projectors, surround sound speakers, radiant heaters, sprinklers, air-conditioning and lighting,” Barclay says.
This immersive experience became a hit with tourists and locals. But when Comvita decided to go on the road to Dubai, the team opted for a virtual approach using HoloLens.
To make it work, the designers melded HoloLens’ technical capabilities with an eclectic mix of scientific research and tips from winemakers who know how to make emotional connections with consumers at a cellar door.
“Our inspiration was wine-tasting – being able to speak to a winemaker and taste their wine and see how it’s made,” she says. “We also consulted with a neuroscientist to understand the role of taste and how to bring that to life at a personal level to differentiate Mānuka from other honeys.”
David Bathgate, Comvita’s global head of marketing, says the interactive experience helps consumers understand the link between Mānuka’s complex taste and its beneficial compounds.
“This is the connection we are trying to make. We are actually changing health as much as the way people taste. So, it becomes something bigger again: tasting the complexity of Mānuka ignites a comprehension of the benefits of Mānuka honey,” he says.
Guardianship of the land
A major feature of the show is also the forest itself, as sustainability is paramount for Comvita. Bathgate uses the Māori word Kaitiakitanga, or guardianship of the land, to describe the company’s core value.
“We want all our guests to understand how that underpins everything we do,” he says. “Comvita has planted around 10 million native trees. We’re the largest private manager of native forests in New Zealand. Our mission is to restore and strengthen the delicate interdependence and balance between humans and nature.”
Bathgate believes the sensory impact of Comvita’s HoloLens experience highlights the fundamental role we all have in “protecting the environment and will inspire people to join us on this mission.”
Matt Bostwick, Partner Director at Microsoft New Zealand, says virtual multi-sensory experiences could help transform consumer attitudes and how food and drink products are marketed around the world.
“They make for more powerful customer engagement, and they have the potential to change the way people think about our relationship with the natural world,” he says.
Meanwhile, Comvita and Blur the Lines are set to push the boundaries of taste even further – both physically and virtually.
They’re now planning to replicate the Auckland Wellness Lab at a prime address in Shanghai, China. And they are ready to bring the HoloLens tasting experience to another world stage for natural products, via the U.S., in mid-2022.
TOP IMAGE: Tasting honey samples during the Comvita HoloLens experience.
All photos courtesy of Comvita.