'Big Brother' Restaurant Spies on Diners

Cameras, sensors record customers' every move for study on consumer behavior.

Dec. 10, 2007 — -- Imagine enjoying a friendly lunch with co-workers at the company restaurant. Now imagine every bite, sip and swallow being monitored by company researchers, in a kind of culinary Big Brother scenario.

That's the reality at the new Dutch Restaurant of the Future, where 23 cameras track customers' every move. Facial recognition technologies record every smile and every frown, and a scale built into the floor weighs customers as they check out. Specially designed chairs note diners' heart rate as they get their first taste.

It's all part of a life-size, 10-year social science experiment designed to answer one seemingly simple question: Why do we consume the way we do?

"We're trying to understand what the underlying factors of eating and drinking habits are," said Rene Koster, the project manager and an economist at Wageningen University, which hosts the restaurant.

"A lot of our decision making is directed by the subconscious," Koster continued. "People often react automatically."

Previous studies have shown that people rarely understand their own behavior when it comes to food and drink. Elements like the color of a mug, for example, can determine whether consumers perceive the same coffee as strong of weak, with red being associated with a particularly robust brew.

And people eating a larger amount of ice cream out of a bigger bowl report being as full as those eating less ice cream out of a smaller bowl, according to one study conducted at the University of Illinois a few years ago.

The Restaurant of the Future opened its doors Oct. 4 and hosts only university students and employees who have signed off on being monitored as they dine. From observation rooms nearby, researchers watch and analyze every move, studying how factors like size, smell, ambiance and packaging influence consumer choices.

In addition to the main dining hall, which is outfitted with attractive white tables and elegant floor-to-ceiling windows, the Restaurant of the Future hosts four smaller "mood labs," identical rooms where, with the flip of a switch, researchers can change the colors of lights, introduce smells or put up panels to give diners the sense they're eating by themselves rather than in a group.

The designers say the Restaurant of the Future, which is operated with the backing of several commercial partners, is the largest-scale experiment ever of its kind. And other experts are already expressing excitement about the possibilities.

"I'm very impressed," said Koert van Ittersum, a professor of marketing at Georgia Tech whose research deals with consumer behavior. "They will probably get us as close to observing real behavior as we can get. The next best is actually going into a restaurant."

Barbara Kahn, dean of the School of Business Administration at the University of Miami, agreed, and said the crucial benefit of Holland's Restaurant of the Future is getting its human subjects out of a laboratory setting.

"You get socially normative behavior," Kahn said of observing people in a traditional study environment. She emphasized that when people are asked to explain or describe their own behavior, their answers are not always accurate.

"They're below conscious-level effects," Kahn said. "You give people a bigger plate, they eat more. But they don't realize that they're doing that. They use all these perceptual cues without knowing it."

Researchers at the Dutch restaurant hope the results of their study will be of interest not only to the corporate world, which has a clear stake in knowing which colors, smells and sounds attract buyers, but also to medical professionals, studying the causes of overeating and obesity.

"People do things without knowing why," van Ittersum said, adding that simply reducing portion size will lead people to be satisfied with less food.

Despite the excitement surrounding the Restaurant of the Future, experts say there are limitations.

"The beauty of observation is that you actually see what happens naturally," van Ittersum told ABC News. "But you're going to yield so much information, you can run a small university just based on the data collected there."

And experts warn the results found at Wageningen University won't necessarily translate elsewhere. Miami's Kahn said there are huge differences across cultures when it comes to food.

"Even with globalization," Kahn said, "one thing that seems pretty culture-bound is food habits."

Van Ittersum, who is from the Netherlands and an alumnus of the institution, agreed.

"Tipping, for example, is not going to be studied at Wageningen University," said van Ittersum, laughing. "It's a simple as that. Tipping is not a part of Dutch culture."

Diners at the Restaurant of the Future, meanwhile, seemed perfectly content being watched, weighed and monitored as they ate and chatted with colleagues.

"I don't feel like I'm being watched; no, not at all," one woman told ABC News as she sat eating her lunch, which included two whole-wheat sandwiches and a banana.

Asked whether she felt comfortable, she answered, "Yeah, of course. Why not?"