The new taste makers: Kiwi honey brand Comvita goes virtual to transform health through our tastebuds

 |   Microsoft New Zealand News Centre

Comvita is a real New Zealand success story, known for its mānuka honey products that have set the world abuzz. Now it has aimed to redraw the taste map, creating an award-winning experiential concept for visitors to its Wellness Lab. But when it joined the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise delegation to Expo 2020 Dubai, it was challenged to break new ground again. The result – a multisensory virtual experience using Microsoft HoloLens headsets connects consumers to the unique health benefits of mānuka honey through taste.

It’s a familiar scene from vineyards across the globe, from the storied Old World wine houses with the ghosts of grapes past wafting through their cellars, to the younger, hipper winelands of Marlborough and Hawkes Bay.

Hushed groups of connoisseurs troop in from a tour of the vines and the vats where magic is made. Wine pours and swirls, and glasses are raised as they sniff for notes of blackberry, pear and mown grass. Then a delicate sip and, eyes closed to block out all other senses, they hunt for lavender, pine and basil.

That’s the noble art of tasting. Or at least, it was.

Two years ago, leading New Zealand mānuka honey producer Comvita wanted to create an experience that rivalled the best of the winemaking world. The company felt the discerning guests who visited its flagship store on Auckland’s harbourfront, drawn from around the world, deserved more than just to taste the honey – they also needed to understand it. Imagine if, instead of simply viewing jars on shelves, visitors could actually tour the beehives!

With help from experiential partner Blur the Lines, Comvita created a tasting experience like no other, bringing guests inside a “Wellness Lab”, a theatre lined with curved screens, to meet projections of founder Alan Bougen and fly through the forests of New Zealand’s North Island to a thoughtfully curated natural soundscape, before the camera zooms into a beehive. The temperature of the room increases to match the bees’ environment, before the screen fills the whole room with honey to activate everyone’s tastebuds for the main event.

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But, when an opportunity to recreate the award-winning experience for Expo 2020 Dubai came up, it challenged Comvita to think even more creatively. How could it bring people into the beehive on the other side of the world?

Connecting taste to nature and health

As a sponsor of the New Zealand Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, Comvita was due to host 60-70 guests for an exclusive tasting event in January 2022. Recreating the Auckland experience from scratch in Dubai was a daunting – and very costly – proposition.

As an ambassador for New Zealand business at the Expo, Comvita was also determined to tell the story of its founding principles, which centre on regenerating native landscapes and fostering them for future generations.

“As of the end of 2021, Comvita will have planted 10 million native trees. Kaitiakitanga, or guardianship, is our core value, and we want all our guests to be moved to join us to create a world where bees and people thrive together in harmony,” says David Bathgate, global head of brand at Comvita.

So what if, instead of projecting images onto a screen, viewers could be transported into the world of bees and the stunning New Zealand native environment via mixed reality? The team had the brainwave of partnering with Microsoft and utilising their HoloLens headsets to completely turn the tasting experience on its head. Instead of encouraging people to close their eyes to focus on taste alone, they created a truly immersive, multisensory experience that connects all the senses together into one incredible, three-dimensional whole that also emphasises the connection between mānuka’s natural ingredients and its unique health benefits.

At the Expo, visitors to Comvita’s tasting experience sit in front of a tray of two honeys, with a spoon and a glass of sparkling water. So far, so normal. Then the HoloLens headsets go on.

Suddenly, guests are in front of a native New Zealand punga tree, with a full-size beehive in front of them. Just like the real hosts in Auckland, a 3D virtual beekeeper guides the audience through the virtual forest. Instead of bees flying around on a screen, tasters wearing the HoloLens experience bees flying around them, complete with sound of the hive and nature in their ears.

“While our inspiration was wine-tasting, we also consulted with a neuroscientist to understand the role of taste and bring it to life at a personal level,” explains Danielle Barclay, founder and creative director of Blur the Lines. “It differentiates mānuka from other honeys by using flavour as a key to unlock people’s understanding of its beneficial properties”.

To add an even more magical note, the HoloLens makes the tasting spoon trace sparkles in the air like a magic wand whenever people dip it into their honey.

Changing the world’s experience of taste

It’s the World Expo theme in a nutshell: Connecting Minds, Creating the Future. The experience could see our tasting experiences change forever, as the world’s food and beverage producers catch on.

“This shows how New Zealand can lead the world in mixed reality, completely changing the experience of taste,” says Olli Lipsanen, mixed reality sales lead at Microsoft New Zealand. “It’s a huge opportunity.”

And Comvita is set to push the boundaries even further. They’re now planning to replicate the Auckland Wellness Lab in Shanghai in June / July 2022, as well as bring the HoloLens tasting experience to US consumers mid-2022.

As David says: “This is a hugely exciting time for us. Together Microsoft and Comvita, two global leaders, are transforming health with a multi-sensory journey of discovery. All around the world, the relationship between our health and nature’s health has never been so important.

“With HoloLens we can share this story with people anywhere, from special events to in-store and even at home. And when they see and understand this natural connection, I’m sure they will be as inspired as we are, to help create a world where we can thrive together, in harmony with nature.”

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