Inside iChina, the Silicon Valley restaurant bets big on VR dining

Since its grand opening last August, modern Chinese restaurant iChina has captured the attention of curious South Bay locals. Located next to more casual restaurants like Shake Shack and the Cheesecake Factory in Santa Clara’s Westfield Valley Fair mall, iChina spans two floors with its palatial decor, including massive chandeliers, marble tables and opulent glass walls.

Later this month, iChina will launch its extravagant virtual reality room, the VR Realm. The experience consists of a sensory immersion in its own right and a tasting menu at full price: a minimum of $4,500 for 10 people. Although the concept may seem fanciful, iChina enters an area that remains largely unexplored. The restaurant is one of the first in the United States with a virtual reality room; there are only a few other VR dining experiences scattered around the world, in high-end restaurants in Shanghai, Serpong in Indonesia, and Ibiza.

The virtual reality dining room at iChina.
iChina

Eddie Lam, executive chef of iChina, suggests that the restaurant’s location in the heart of Silicon Valley made the virtual reality room a logical, albeit huge, investment. “We wanted to bring that to Silicon Valley,” he says. “It made sense. The people and the clientele here, they want experiences like this. It was definitely an ambitious project, but we are thrilled to have it come to life.

Silicon Valley is known as the technology capital of the world. From advanced computers to self-driving cars, technological advancements of all kinds have their roots in the South Bay, and the culture of innovation has permeated the region for decades. But rarely has this tech spirit been adopted so directly by restaurants. Lam believes incorporating an influx of visual and auditory components into a sit-down meal sets the stage for a memorable dinner and could be the next big trend at the intersection of food and entertainment.

Although iChina’s entire space is expansive — a whopping 9,615 square feet upstairs and 2,682 square feet downstairs — the VR room is small and intimate at just 275 square feet, with a long table and chairs in a conference style setup. The concept of VR probably conjures up bulky headsets, but iChina’s room doesn’t require such equipment. Instead, the room uses eight projectors strategically pinned to the ceiling. High definition scenes are then mirrored onto four white leather walls and a reflective marble table, immersing diners in a continuous display that comes and goes. At the start of the experience, the boundaries of the room melt away, replaced by a global environment. Each of the current 11 stages aligns with a corresponding course.

A cherry blossom scene projected onto the dining room walls in virtual reality.

A scene featuring a cherry blossom garden.
iChina

The scenes reflect a variety of tranquil settings, including a bamboo forest, a pond, a cherry blossom garden, a wall of mosaics, and a water lantern festival. Each uses the physical space to project meticulous detail for diners; for example, in the pond scene, koi fish swim across the table. “For the aquatic scene, we serve our seafood dish,” says Lam, although he plans to modify the menu to suit each customer’s taste.

Not all courses are conceptually associated with a scene. Instead, Lam operates with a unifying theme in mind: to create modern interpretations of Chinese cuisine reminiscent of the dishes he enjoyed as a child. Some of the VR scenes also feature cultural elements, and he hopes the experience will immerse diners in a way that transcends food alone. There are also matching musical elements: a serene bamboo flute song plays during a performance of the cherry blossom scene; a bit more fiery air accompanies the scene with water lanterns. The aquatic scene features soothing music with the subtle sound of a whale call playing in the background.

Projection of flowers on a cover placed on a table.

Elements projected onto cutlery.
iChina

iChina’s design team has paid special attention to the VR room, working with Chinese specialists who have created various types of VR experiences in East Asia. Although there was precedent, Lam says VR dining halls are still rare in China, and most of iChina’s stuff was created from scratch. After the design team arranged for custom plates and furniture to be imported from China, they used a technique called projection mapping to make the content as immersive as possible. With this technology, spatial data – such as room dimensions and the location of furniture, plates and diners – allows projections to truly envelop the entire space.

Considering the high price, the VR room is clearly not for everyone. So who East that for? According to Lam, they’ve had ongoing inquiries since last year, mostly from high-end enterprise customers. As iChina begins to book reservations, the team has created additional scenes, some of which may even include corporate logos.

Parag Patel, an iChina customer who works at a local tech company, hopes to book the VR room for his team’s next offsite in the Bay Area. “Many of my teammates come from outside of California to these offsite sites and are excited about experiences like this — ones that are unique to the Silicon Valley locale and are rooted in technology,” says- he. Although the pandemic has delayed corporate meetings, Parag is confident his team would be willing to pay a premium for the interactive experience.

iChina has other options for group dining that come without the VR technology and high cost, and the restaurant hopes to bridge the gap between tradition and innovation. Even with the VR experience and plenty of designs, Lam insists iChina is a lot less flashy than you might think; just look at his name. Contrary to popular belief, the “i” in iChina is not a nod to a well-known smartphone. Instead, it is intended to highlight Chinese identity and self, while emphasizing the collective Chinese-American experience. “In short, it represents the love one has for China,” Lam said. “We wanted to build a place of pride for the Chinese-American community and something that they could really relate to. For us, that’s what it’s always been about. »

About Walter Bartholomew

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