Have you ever thought about using chocolate as a way to tell stories? Bristol-based food startup Understory certainly has, and it is using brain-scanning technology to see the effect of its food creations – and the environment it is eaten in – on people, so they can refine the narrative experience to be the best possible for the eater.

“I want our customers to be eager to eat the next installment in a mystery or to fall in love with flavours the way we do with characters”

 

We caught up with James Whale, poet, stand-up and the founder of Understory, to find out more. He tells us: “Understory is a storytelling chocolate company. It makes experimental chocolates with the world’s rarest cocoa bean, Fortunato no. 4, and tell stories/create experiences using the confectionary. Food has significant emotional depth, think of your mum’s home cooking or recipes of a religious/cultural significance. Using food as a storytelling device can create meaningful experience that heightens both our enjoyment of the food and story.”

He adds: “I want our customers to have an experience that goes beyond eating a delicious chocolate bar or the novelty of a story told in a new way. I want our customers to be eager to eat the next installment in a mystery or to fall in love with flavours the way we do with characters.”

Chocolate tasting menu to chocolate bars

As part of Understory’s exploration of using food to tell stories, James recently got an Arts Council grant to build wooden electronic consoles that would act as plates and tell an animated story of the Chocolate Wars between courses of a 7-course chocolate-themed tasting menu. As James explains: “The idea is to heighten the experience of the chocolate through a narrative that contextualises it.”

A few of the TechSPARK team were lucky enough to try out the full experience and the feedback was very, very positive: “I never thought I’d enjoy a combination of sea bass and white chocolate, but the whole meal was gone within 30 seconds! And that was just one course! This was high-class dining with a great digital interactive twist,” says TechSPARK Editor, Jamie.

Understory-chocolate-wars

Chocoholics rejoice! A willing TechSPARK volunteer
experiences 
the Understory 7-course chocolate-based tasting
menu 
with interactive ‘Chocolate Wars’ narrative.

The development of the tasting menu was a way for James to refine what foods Understory should concentrate on for the storytelling aspect to work best: ” We were awarded Arts Council Funding to develop our dining consoles and through a sustained prototyping period and scratch performances we have concluded that chocolate bars will be the best way for us to tell stories and hone our craft. We are aiming to make them simple to understand, delicious to eat, engrossing to experience and ethical to produce. All of these aims have to be satisfied before a product hits the shelves.”

Brain-scanning and eating crickets

As mentioned earlier, Understory also innovatively use the information EEG brain scanning can provide to learn what environment best complements the food you are eating. As James says: “From our research with the University of West of England, where we use brain scanners to gauge the relationship between storytelling and flavour, we are starting to see what works and what doesn’t.”

“Taking music as an example, the higher the frequency of sound you hear – the sweeter your food will taste”

 

It’s a complicated process because the flavour of food arises from a very complex reaction from your senses, as James explains: “Flavour is the most multisensory experience human beings have. Everything from who told you the information about your food (are they close to you, are they regarded an expert, do you like them?) to the social setting, the lighting, the temperature of the food, the sound it makes between your teeth, the depth of the colour, the sound of the word that is that food’s name and so on, all contribute to your perception of the flavour. Taking music as an example, the higher the frequency of sound you hear – the sweeter your food will taste. This means you can acoustically season your food, in theory.”

freeze dried grasshoppersAt TechSPARK we also got the opportunity to have a go using the brain scanner (see main picture) and seeing our reactions to what we were eating – unfortunately this was freeze-dried crickets (see right) as opposed to chocolate! Although the crickets turned out to be relatively bearable, it was interesting to see the brain’s responses to what we ate.

Bristol’s artistic aura

Understory are based in the Watershed’s Pervasive Media Studio and James feels the creative shared space, and Bristol in general, have been essential catalysts for the company, “The Pervasive Media studio is the reason Understory exists,” he tells us simply. “I have been exposed to so many ideas, so much valuable advice and so much support in kind by producers and other artists that I am confident that there is no other way Understory could have evolved to the stage it is currently at without it.”

“Collaboration, sharing of skills and pan-medium art defines Bristol”

 

“Extrapolating that to Bristol as a city, those virtues can be seen from Paintworks to At-Bristol’s Planetarium. The Universities here, Bristol and UWE, sink their resources and knowledge into the creative community and it really shows. It does not take long to identify what it is you don’t know that you need to and who can help you to learn. Collaboration, sharing of skills and pan-medium art defines the city.”

Onwards and upwards

James has big plans for Understory in the future: “This year is a big year for us, it’s the distillation of all this research into our first proper products. We’ve been working on experimental love potions – one for comfort, one for passion and one for intimacy. For these we’ve been working with scientists, alchemists, the brain scanner and some ridiculously knowledgeable foodies. We’ve got our first chocolate bars coming out next year which are the first kind of bars of their kind – both in terms of ingredients but also content, they come with an experience.”

“I’m also working on a set of Easter eggs based on Dragons and Holst’s ‘The Planets’, which will be more of an art piece.”

Sound exciting? If you want to get involved with helping develop these products, Understory will be doing public testing so drop them an email if interested; all research will be documented on their website as James feels it’s important to give back to the foodie community what Understory learns.

We’d like to thank James for taking the time to show us what Understory does. To read more visit the Understory website or drop them an email at: contact@understory.co.uk

Shona Wright

Shona covers all things editorial at TechSPARK. She publishes news articles, interviews and features about our fantastic tech and digital ecosystem, working with startups and scaleups to spread the word about the cool things they're up to. She also oversees TechSPARK's social media, sharing the latest updates on everything from investment news to green tech meetups and inspirational stories.