Friday Funny: This Exhibit’s Good Enough To Eat

In the ultimate effort to make an exhibition sustainable, CRA used more than 30,000 pralines to build an Artificial Intelligence-run pavilion for high-end chocolate maker Venchi.

It’s not often an exhibit can truly be described as delicious, but this one is bound to get visitors’ mouths watering: international design and innovation firm Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA) has designed an edible pavilion made of pralines for chocolate maker Venchi.

Carlo Ratti Associati chocolate maker Venchi
Design by Carlo Ratti Associati

The project will be part of the new Venchi area within FICO Eataly World, a theme park dedicated to Italian food culture opening next month in the city of Bologna, northern Italy. Inside the edible pavilion, CRA has developed a number of chocolate-related “experiences,” including the use of artificial intelligence to measure visitors’ reactions and feelings when eating sweets.

The Edible Wall

The external walls of the pavilion are made up of more than 30 thousand different kinds of pralines, spread over a 26-foot, 11.5-foot high surface. Each chocolate candy can be picked by visitors, making the vertical element of the pavilion entirely edible. From afar, the pralines are arranged in a mosaic that makes them look like a giant chocolate bar, which has been dubbed the largest chocolate arrangement in the world.

Carlo Ratti Associati chocolate maker Venchi
Design by Carlo Ratti Associati

“I never liked the fact that exhibitions require the use of large amounts of construction materials that then end up in landfills after just a few months,” said Carlo Ratti, founding partner of CRA and director of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “In this project we thought: what if the pavilion could be dismantled by simply eating it? We also liked the reference to the timeless fairytale of Hansel and Gretel. The construction process, however, proved to be more challenging than we initially thought – as some building parts were eaten up on site during the installation…”

Inside The Pavilion

The inside of the pavilion is also focused on chocolate, and explores the effects of chocolate on humans. After entering through the chocolate wall, visitors can engage in a digitally-augmented tasting experience. Visitors are invited to sit inside a booth and try different Venchi pralines. Using artificial intelligence and facial recognition technologies developed in collaboration with Milan-based interaction design studio Dotdotdot, each person’s reactions to different types of chocolate are inferred from the micro-movements of lips, eyebrows, pupils, nostrils, and forehead.

Carlo Ratti Associati chocolate maker VenchiAfter the individual tasting experience, visitors enter the “Chocolate Portraits” room. There, recordings of prior visitors’ emotions when eating chocolate are projected. Individual reactions are analyzed and shown in bright colors. In this ethereal space, dozens of faces seem to float in the air, creating a high-tech portrait gallery that showcases images of men, women, and children of all ages enjoying chocolate.

“The interaction design project for Venchi is one of our first applications of Affective Computing in the field of exhibition design,” said Alessandro Masserdotti, co-founder of Dotdotdot. “We trained an algorithm based on Artificial Intelligence to trace, analyze and categorize facial expressions, an example of creative application of one of the most interesting and compelling technology.”

After exiting the Chocolate Portraits room, visitors enter a laboratory where they can observe and partake in the making of Venchi’s products. They can get a hands-on demo of the manufacturing process, but also create a fully customized chocolate bar, tailored to their personal taste based on the data about individual preferences gathered in the previous area.

Carlo Ratti Associati chocolate maker Venchi“Food has always been one of the best expressions of a culture’s identity, sense of place, and spirit,” said GB Mantelli, CEO of Venchi. “Now, with the new store at FICO, we tried to push the boundaries of design, combining the taste of chocolate with visual creativity and invention. Italy has always been synonymous with good food, cheerfulness, and design; in short, all the qualities that the new Venchi store represents. Working with Carlo Ratti Associati has been crucial to achieve such an effect, and the result defines a new, exciting standard for our company’s stores.”

“This project investigates a possible future for retail spaces as e-commerce becomes more and more widespread,” said Andrea Cassi, project lead at CRA. “To reclaim the importance of physical space, we must shape a unique experience, in which the digital and physical together produce a new kind of magic — in this case reconnecting us with the emotional language of fairytales.”

The new Venchi store will be unveiled on November 15, during the opening of FICO Eataly World.