Man vs Food: I took on the McDonald's VR potato harvest simulator

Taters gonna tate

Oculus

"Slow down," the farmer commands me, growing more aggravated. "You're spoiling the potatoes". On my dash computer "POTATOES ARE BRUISING!" starts flashing with such urgency you'd think the USS Voyager was in meltdown. If I go too fast the potatoes will fall off the back of the trailer; too slow and they'll start hailing on my roof. It's imperative I keep a steady pace at all times in order to prevent ruining these spuds from impact. This is Speed 3: Bruise Control.

When I finally remove the Oculus Rift headset bystanders congratulate me for reaching a new high score, but I'm my own worst critic: I could have done better. It's just a game, I know, but I can't stop thinking about all the goddamn spoiled potatoes.

The game, a harvesting simulator called Top of the Crops, will soon be available for public consumption. It'll be touring around the country on a McDonald's truck visiting a handful of big shows as part of the company's new 'Follow our Footsteps' initiative. The initiative has two goals. It wants to show you how a Big Mac is made, and encourage more people to consider a career in the industry.

To do that, McDonald's is using technology to try to dispel certain myths. In addition to the Oculus Rift game, visitors can strap on a Gear VR and watch short 360-degree videos that glimpse different parts of the production process. Another game teaches people about all the different careers the industry has to offer. The Oculus Rift game is really more for fun.

Tractor

It's certainly an interesting way to bring people closer to the realities of modern farming, but some scepticism will inevitably linger. At the end of the day it's a big advert for McDonald's, which, pretty much ever since Morgan Spurlock's documentary Super Size Me appeared in 2004, has been striving to give itself a healthier image. The company has become more transparent over the last few years, but when it comes to sourcing, for example, there are still improvements to be made. We were shown a Gear VR video of chickens on a British farm, but it's no secret that not all Mcdonald's UK chickens are sourced in this country.

However the initiative also speaks to wider issues: the skills gap in the farming sector; the knowledge vacuum that exists in this industry; the fact that almost 110,000 new recruits are needed in the food industry by 2022 to keep up with the UK's rising population, according to the Food and Drink Federation.

"We know the food industry and farming industry has a number of challenges," says McDonald's head of supply chain Connor McVeigh. "A measure of success for us would be not only the feedback we'll get from using the headsets, but ultimately how many people we think we will be able to attract. Ideally into the McDonald's supply chain, but this is a broader industry challenge for attracting people into food and farming."

Oculus

Several young farmers will be part of this agricultural roadshow, which will use VR to demonstrate how eggs, beef and milk are made for McDonald's. A YouGov poll of 2,000 people revealed that 74% wanted to know more about how their food was sourced, while one in five could not explain any part of the process behind food production.

"It's not about sanitising it or skewing it in any direction It's about a snapshot, an opportunity to drop them into that experience," McVeigh told me. But McDonald's aside, there are other benefits from this. The average age of a British farmer is skewed far too high, something that needs to change if the targets of 2022 are going to be met.

Thankfully there was no abattoir VR experience, but I did ask McVeigh about the importance of transparency in this area. It's not something that would be enjoyable to see, but animal welfare is obviously a vital issue. "It's important to recognise the audience we're engaging with," he said, "But also this is isn't the only means we're opening our supply chain. Last year we invited a number of high-profile YouTubers to our supply chain, full access, whatever doors they wanted open were open to them."

It will be industry to see if any of his can change perceptions of the industry. For me, I'm just waiting for an opportunity to improve my high score.

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