Symbiosis

Symbiosis is a performative, multi-user and multi-sensory VR installation in which the human body is redesigned. It allows a participant to embody a post-human or even nonhuman reality: a completely symbiotic human-animal or human-technologic relationship. Dutch experience design collective Polymorf investigates in a speculative way how a more symbiotic exchange of genetic, cultural and technological traits between people and other future living entities could increase. How will such affect future coexistence, legal rights and relationships between humans and other living entities on a physical, emotional and spiritual level?

Symbiosis uses VR as a theatrical and philosophical tool to design an embodied multi-sensory experience. Within Symbiosis, the visitor is both spectator and performer. The installation consists of a performative space that offers a multi-user VR experience. Each experience is describing a specific symbiotic human-animal or human-technologic relationship. By choosing one of the stories, the visitor selects a character and role in the overall story world. Participants play a different symbiotic role in each other’s individual lives and all characters come together at the end of the experience to join in a shared food ritual. Within the performance, the physical body of the participant is used as a muscle to control his/her speculative virtual body. This is done through a uniquely designed soft robotic wearable enabling various haptic bodily interactions and manipulations.

The individual VR experiences build towards a collective eating ritual, sharing virtual and real food. For this, a series of specially designed snacks infuse the virtual food with unexpected taste sensations. The all-vegetarian snacks are designed by master chefs from the Dutch Michelin-starred restaurant Karpendonkse Hoeve.

Symbiosis is inspired by Donna Haraway’s books Staying With The Trouble and The Camille Stories: Children of Compost. It make physically tangible post-human body architectures within a post humanistic social context, questioning current humanistic, anthropocentric and liberal beliefs.

Technology

The Symbiosis VR world is set up as an open game world with a collectively shared story world and several unique storylines and perceptual experiences. The multi-user VR setup consists of up to 4 connected computers with HTC PRO EYE VR-headsets attached (eye tracking enabled). Facilitating a 15-minute experience for a group of up to 4 persons simultaneously.

Each computer runs its own Steam session and a Unity client synchronized by (web) sockets. A web controlled javascript/node.js realtime server handles all communication and the MAX/Arduino controlled soft robotic integration. For body tracking the HTC sensors are combined with the Antilatency multiuser sensor system, providing realtime sensor data on multiple body position points. For this the Antilatency sensors are integrated in the soft robotic wearables.

The Symbiosis experience is setup as a smooth and intuitive interaction. This means the experience is hands free and does not rely on pushing buttons. The audience can touch physical objects or other players. Within the VR environment most interactions are triggered by tracking sensor collisions and by means of gazing at things the user wants to influence. The eye tracking system will trigger additional audio, animated sequences or contextual information on top of the internal monologue.

To control the soft robotics Symbiosis makes use of a pneumatic odor printer technology and Max software developed for Polymorf’s Famous Deaths art installation. This setup works on compressed air and can accurately control air supply and air pressure. 

Performances

Forum / Groningen, The Netherlands / 29-08-2021
Evolutionaries exhibition at Mu Hybrid Art House / Eindhoven, The Netherlands / 12 to 18-04-2021.
IDFA DocLab / Online / 26-11-2020.
Breda Photo / Breda, The Netherlands / 10, 11-10-2020.

Press

Review in the NRC titled What do animals see when watching people? / 10-11-2020 / Dana Linssen

“It is so easy to project our own thoughts into those faithful eyes [of animals]. Or ideas about the nature of the other – human or animal. Or something else entirely. That’s why the interactive virtual reality experience Symbiosis at IDFA’s DocLab by the design collective Polymorph is recommended. They take you along to a future full of big words.”

Dana Linssen

Credits

Created by Polymorf, commissioned by STRP and Breda Photo.
Produced by Polymorf in collaboration with Studio Biarritz.

Designed by Marcel van Brakel: concept, scenario and art direction.
Mark Meeuwenoord: pneumatics, sound design, and co-director.
Luciano Pinna and Frank Bosma: interaction, coding and hardware integration.
Roberto Digiglio and Edwin Kuipers: 3D modelling and animation.
Karpendonkse Hoeve: food design.
Corine Meyers: producer.
Marieke Nooren: sales and partnerships.
Maurice Spapens: wearables.
Additional design team, design research, 3D modelling and coding: Dyon van Harten, Gal Kinan, Wouter van Meegdenburg, Elja Rutters, Richelle Smits, Paul Staring, Bram Ockeloen, Audrey Ristawati.

Special thanks to: Rob van der Veeken & Ingrid van Eeghem, Wander Eikelboom, Theo Andriessen, Ton van Gool and the STRP team, Gieske Bienert and Synchron.

Symbiosis is supported by NL Film Fund, Creative Industries Fund NL and the Sundance Institute, New Frontier Story Lab program.