An Eye-Tracking Menu Made Me Question My Vegetarianism

According to Pizza Hut’s “subconscious” menu, what I really crave is a Meat Feast.

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Dec 9 2014, 12:40pm

​Image: Gian Volpicelli

Like most people, I never thought much of menus. Except for a brief, inglorious period when I worked as a waiter, and menus were part of my professional routine, I generally regarded them as respectable scraps of paper from which to choose meals.

In no way did I see them as stimulating, let alone as a challenge to my personal and political positions. Until recently, that is, when Pizza Hut's new "subconscious" menu tracked the movements of my pupils and suggested that my vegetarianism was a sham.

The fast-food chain is about to a la​unch a menu system that purports to guess every customer's subconscious choice of pizza—out of 4,896 potential combinations—by dint of a tablet and a Tobii eye-tracking device. The screen shows a smorgasbord of ingredients, then the reader interprets eye-wandering patterns to pin down the user's most coveted toppings. The invention, heralded as "the end of the traditional paper menu" in a press release, is being tested in Pizza Hut's PR office in London, so I decided to have a go at being second-guessed about my pizza fancies.

Image: Gian Volpicelli

I approached the device with the skeptical agenda of debunking its mind-reading capabilities. My profile made me a hard nut: I am vegetarian (ok, pescetarian) and I was born and raised in Rome, where I have learned to love basic, light pizzas—a pizza with mushroom and tomato is the most complex I can stomach. If the psychic menu pulled a haphazard guess, I would know.

My first encounter with the machine lasted about ten seconds. Just the time to stare at the black screen, glimpse the colourful ingredient collection, and then the verdict emerged: turned out that I wanted a Cajun Sizzler, a jumbo pizza generously laden with chicken and pepperoni (which, I realised, wasn't Italian peperoni—peppers—but a very meaty thing). A second attempt was an even more resounding fiasco, as the wise device suggested something called Meat Feast. It took a third try, and a lot of studious basil-gawping, to have the tablet dish out a light, vegetarian option.

So, the "mind-reading menu" didn't work? According to a Pizza Hut spokesperson, the answer was less clear-cut: "Subconsciously, you probably wanted those pizzas."

A more technical explanation is given by Simon Moo​re, a psychologist who was involved in the device's development. "We are automatically driven to foods that give us more nutrition—it is a safety mechanism we've inherited from primitive man that still plays a role in our subconscious decision making," Moore is quoted as saying in the company's press release. In other words, my vegetarianism was nothing but a thin moral veneer screening a Meat Feast-craving caveman.

Subconsciously, you probably wanted those pizzas

Maybe so. But the question then is what the use of such menu is: even if I accepted that my meatless diet was just a charade, I would still want to keep it up when going for a pizza. And a Freudian tablet wagging its digital finger would be the least of my desires when trying to decide what to eat. (I can almost hear the cackles of my meat-eating friends, finally handed evidence that my tirades about animal rights are full of crap, if only subconsciously).

To cut Pizza Hut some slack, the subconscious menu is intended more as an object of amusement than a diagnostic device. "The subconscious menu will be a fun way to choose what to order, but paper menus will still be available," the company's spokesperson said. At least for the time being. But, accordin​g to Tobii, 98 percent of people who tested the new menu were satisfied with the outcome. Maybe their palates were less fussy than mine.

I'll certainly take the Luddite stance of sticking to dull, non-inquiring menus: some things are best left subconscious.