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"When people see and understand the value of your product, they start ordering more from your restaurant," notes Alper Guler, QREAL.io's head of product. So what can help customers see the value of your product in these pandemic times? According to him, it's AR renderings of menu items.
QREAL.io creates 3D models of food that restaurants can integrate into their websites and social media profiles. It's a step past just posting good pictures of your food. It's allowing consumers to view a near-real version, engage with the AR lenses, and even create their own organic content. Content about your food. For free. That's a sweet deal.
Back of House spoke with Guler about how QREAL.io works, how AR links customers with the restaurant, and why AR will be so important for the future of the restaurant industry.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Back of House: Let's start at the beginning. Why don't you tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do for QREAL.
Alper Guler, QREAL: I'm the head of product for QREAL. We create augmented reality experiences for food brands and the hospitality industry.
BOH: How long have you been with QREAL and how long has the company itself been around?
AG: We started the company back in 2016, the early days of using augmented reality. In the last four years, the industry [has changed] a lot in terms of technology. Tech companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Instagram, Snapchat, all these tech giants are investing heavily in augmented-reality experiences. We believe the same brands who are immersing in AR are the brands who have had a positive impact on food in terms of sharing it on social platforms. Social platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, they push food brands and restaurants to create more visual food. Any restaurant [that] wants to be in the game needs to be delicious, but at the same time, they need to look better than ever, because people love shooting photos of their food and sharing on their social media. [If] I’m a person that goes to that restaurant, and I shoot a photo of my food and share on my social media, it introduces the brand to my friends. This created a new world where everyone creates more visual food — creating new ways to present, and that’s called augmented reality. We are creating content for the new world. We create 3d models of food and integrate that into Snapchat and Instagram so people can use these assets in their menus.
BOH: Tell me a little bit about how that works.
AG: Our whole goal is to give users a sense to make better decisions about their food. So you go into a restaurant, you see the waiter carry food, and sometimes, you're interested in that product. We're visual creatures, and we're attracted to some of the items. Food is pretty. Food is something that we desire, and we want to bring that same kind of desire when you're ordering the food. We're enabling you to see the food — before you order — on your table. We try to trick your brain that food is sitting on your table. We want you to make a better decision with your food ordering.
BOH: If your client is a restaurant, are you looking at the real food that they create, and then developing models that replicate that in AR?
AG: There are a couple ways that we can work with restaurants. One is in-restaurant. We start working with you, and we capture your food in real 3D. The restaurant cooks the food one time when our photographer is there, and we capture the food in a way that we can use in 3D. The process is about six, seven minutes per food item. We process them, and that process usually takes two weeks.
After that, we mostly integrate that into Instagram — most of the restaurants today have Instagram accounts. On your Instagram account, users can see your whole menu by using these augmented lenses, and they can put your food on their tables before they even visit your restaurant, or when they visit your restaurant, there's a QR code. You scan the code, and that QR code can open an Instagram link, which most of the people probably have on their phones, then Instagram brings the actual food on your table. And then you can swipe through all the other food items or you can just go for the premium items. That 3D model, that realistic looking food model sits in front of you and hopefully gives you a better understanding of the food in terms of size and how it looks, and you can make a decision based on how you see it.
BOH: What sort of applications are you seeing? Are you helping restaurants develop AR experiences, or is it mostly oriented around like looking at the food on the plate?
AG: In restaurants, I think seeing the menu is the number one use case we have. Since we're building this on Instagram, people and brands use it. For the Instagram stories. once the brands create stories — you can shoot a story using this lens, and also your followers can unlock the same lens, and they can shoot their own stories — restaurants are giving a tool for their followers to create content for them. So it creates a viral effect. You cook the best meal you can cook, you took a photo or video of it, then all your followers see it. That's great, because you're getting engaged with your clients. But what we're giving you here is the tool to the brand — the brand shoots a story using the lens, then all their followers can watch the story and click a button to unlock these lenses, then they can use it themselves to bring it to the lower level for their own followers.
BOH: Gotcha. So they can then use it in their own stories.
AG: Yes, so any of it creates a viral effect. We work with food brands like Domino's, Subway, and Dunkin’ Donuts for AR experiences to tell stories about their food and how they source it, and we can bring in video effects behind the food. So if you're making a sandwich, you can bring the sandwich into your scene. We can show what type of ingredients you use to make that sandwich, and you can show a video [about sourcing]. If telling stories about your food or how you sourced them is important, we can embed those lines into the AR.
What we’re trying to do here is not to scan the full menu. Our goal is to scan the top 10 performing items, or the higher margin items to feature them. Let's say an average burger is $11. And if you have a burger for $14, which is a more premium item, you want to show a premium difference, and we want people to decide on that item compared to the regular burger. It really pushes people for the upsell. Our goal is to show how your premium burger looks better compared to the regular burger.
We also use this as a dessert menu. It’s like the dessert cart back in the day. In this fashion, they can bring a tablet, which has the dessert menu, and while they're showing it, they can literally place the dessert in front of you. If they're not even thinking about ordering a dessert, they [may] just decide on ordering one, just by seeing it. These are the two main use cases at restaurants and using social media to tell stories about your food — to attract more clients and create brand new awareness.
BOH: Have you seen your clients using AR to bridge that gap between the customer and restaurant since they're not able to actually have them dine in [because of COVID]?
AG: I guess that's what we are trying to do. I think augmented reality is a way to create a connection between the restaurant and people ordering. I really like how you described it.
BOH: You've been working in this area since 2016. What do you see ahead for AR as a technology in the food service business?
AG: I think the best opportunities will be around delivery, [as we’ve seen] since COVID [started]. When Grubhub introduced photos at first, back in the day, brands started shooting [subpar] photos, and it didn't really play well compared to text. I remember when UberEATS or Caviar came into play, they just hired high-end photographers. They went to the restaurants and got higher-end photos that really pumped the sales up. When people see and understand the value of your product, they start ordering more from your restaurant.
I see this as an opportunity, using augmented reality — we're using this and creating a better way compared to photos. I believe all the delivery apps in the future will start integrating augmented reality to bridge that gap, to bring the product to your table for you to order. [For example,] you have a big table, I can bring all 50 items or like 30 items into one scene, and then you can decide. Or, let’s say you decided on a burger [for delivery] but you don't know which burger place to order from. [The AR feature] brings five different burgers from five different places, and I can see which one attracts me more and just make my decision, instead of going to reviews and text based information.
This is a beginning for augmented reality. We're using our phones today, but in the future, we will have augmented reality glasses. Apple is working on those glasses, and the whole idea is maybe 10 years from now, we'll be wearing them. Phones are pretty much integrated into our daily lives, and augmented reality glasses will just replace them. When I look for food, I'll tell my phone or my smart glasses to show me the best burgers, and it will bring it to my table. That content will be 3D, so the same content that we create today will be used in a different way. I believe delivery apps will start integrating this into their processes pretty soon.
In 2016, we were creating QR codes for the brands to scan on their menus, and everyone thought we were crazy for doing so. But now in Turkey [where Guler was when we spoke with him], they ban paper menus, and you need to have a QR code instead of a menu. Now, the time is coming. Bringing all those technologies together, AR can be a great solution to tell or show how that food looks.
BOH: You mentioned most of where you're seeing this be deployed is on Instagram. But do you work with other social platforms as well?
AG: Facebook and Instagram share the same back end, so as we put content on Instagram, we can just replicate that content and push it on Facebook. And the same content can be used on Snapchat as well, so we can integrate. Also, we create integrations on the websites, so on your website, we can have a 3d model of the product or of the food item, and then when they want it, they can [put it] on Instagram. People do a lot of sharing, and that viral sharing effect creates the real value for the brands.
BOH: If I'm a restaurant operator, and I've never done AR before, what would I need to know about AR to get involved? What’s something that you would tell someone new to the space?
AG: They don't need to know anything about it. We handhold you for the whole process. You just need to cook the food. We try to understand what your best social media platform is, or the best channel that you engage with, [whether it’s] Instagram, Snapchat or the website. We show you the best practices of how to engage with your clients using augmented reality, and we show you what to put on the paper menus to start the experience. [You can] print QR codes on your menu for specific items, or just create one QR code for the augmented reality menu, integrate this on your social conversations, and it just takes off. I think it's a great way to start engagement with followers or like potential clients. We did some research studies, [and they] found augmented reality putting the food in front of you really stimulates the brain and affects your purchasing decision.