The eating experience is multimodal. As we consume a dish, we perceive much more than that which initially activates the senses, including influences from our surroundings. Foods sampled in experimental settings are largely evaluated within a sensory booth, an environment designed to be devoid of such external or non-standardized stimuli, so that participants can focus solely on the sample itself. In natural experiences, we rarely consume food in such isolation—context is actually key to many dining experiences and can have an integral role in how we perceive the foods we eat. Using virtual reality to artificially provide this context, we tested how the setting in which a beverage was consumed influenced perception of two different samples. Virtual environments were formed by processing custom-recorded 360 degree videos and overlaying audio, text, and sensory scales to simulate a typical sensory evaluation. Participants were asked to taste two alcoholic beverages, a beer and a sparkling wine, in two virtual contexts, a bar and a winery. The results indicated that participants’ willingness to pay for, and overall enjoyment of the sparkling wine increased when placed in the winery context, with no change between the two virtual contexts for the beer sample. This occurred without alteration of the samples’ sensory properties or the ability of panelists to identify the beverage they were drinking; however, perceived appropriateness of the samples for the setting was strongly influenced by the context in which they were sampled, suggesting that perceived appropriateness for a surrounding may play a role in the degree to which we enjoy a food. Results provide further proof that artificially-applied context, such as that provided by virtual reality, can further the sensory testing of foods.
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