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 Vive Tracker sensor system, providing realtime sensor data on multiple body position points. For this the trackers 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

IDFA DocLab / Amsterdam, The Netherlands / 17 to 28-11-2021
Cinema Ecologica at Eye / Amsterdam, The Netherlands / 3 to 17-11-2021
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

Article in Variety titled Creators of multisensory VR experience Symbiosis set to launch Future Botanica app / 28-11-2021 / Marta Balaga

Marcel van Brakel and Mark Meeuwenoord, winners of IDFA’s Special Jury Award for Creative Technology for their project Symbiosis, are already working on an augmented reality (AR) spin-off app, “Future Botanica”, which will allow the audience to co-create new lifeforms and talk about ecosystems.

Marta Balaga

Review in Het Parool titled Virtual wombs and brain massages at DocLab in the Tolhuistuin / 24-11-2021 / Joost Broeren-Huitenga

Symbiosis puts users in the body of a toad, a single-celled creature or a butterfly by not only putting on VR goggles and headphones, but also hoisting a complete suit on them. In this way, the scope of the human body is reduced and played with via soft robotics. During the experience, smells and food are also administered. Rarely has a digital world been so physical before.

Joost Broeren-Huitenga

Article in Cultuurpers titled Symbiosis, or how I wanted to become a butterfly / 22-11-2021 / Helen Western

The 15-minute VR is ultimately very linear: you follow the monologue interior of your guise, with a little room to look around on your own. And actually, that’s fine. So much is happening that I wouldn’t know how to add to it myself. It was nice to listen to a voice telling me who I was and how I became a butterfly. Did I really feel like a butterfly? No, but it was good to be in the virtual space. I could fly along with other monarch butterflies and moved in a beautiful, mysterious environment.

Helen Westerik

Review in De Volkskrant titled At the documentary festival in Amsterdam you can also experience virtual reality / 21-11-2021 / Bor Beekman

Exactly how the toad thinks remains unclear in this deeply philosophical yet rather gimmicky experience. This toad was quite warm, though, in that suit. And the lady next to him wished to leave the amoeba suit before the vr-sensation started: a bit too claustrophobic. She did like the butterfly one though.

Bor Beekman

Review in De Filmkrant titled IDFA DocLab 2021: Symbiosis / 17-11-2021 / Kees Driessen

“But as with Haraway, the speculative VR total experience of Symbiosis is not so much about the concrete goal that is achieved as the new, unexpected and stimulating direction that is pointed in. Because even though I wasn’t an amoeba, I’ve never wanted so strongly to be one. And that’s not nothing either.”

Kees Driessen

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

Awards

Symbiosis was selected for the 2021 IDFA DocLab Competition for Immersive Non-Fiction and won the IDFA Special Jury Award for Creative Technology in this category!

This award celebrates the courage, skill, and craft of makers who push the boundaries across disciplines and technologies. There is no better way to describe the evident creative process and resulting experience we give this prize to. The creators take us to all corners of their world, asking us to explore the role of all your senses in a story. This combination of design, engineering, audiovisuality, and multi-sensoriality surely plays an integral role in the future of immersive experience.

Jury members: ​Myriam Achard, Avinash Changa, Eleanor (Nell) Whitley

Credits

Designed and produced by Polymorf in collaboration with Studio Biarritz.

Concept, scenario and art direction: Marcel van Brakel
Coding pneumatics engineering and sound design: Mark Meeuwenoord

Interaction:
Coding and hardware integration: Luciano Pinna & Frank Bosma
3D Lead designer: Roberto Digiglio, Wearable’s: Maurice Spapens

Food design: Karpendonkse Hoeve

Producer: Corine Meijers
Sales and partnerships: Marieke Nooren

3D modeling and animation: Martijn Zandvliet and Edwin Kuipers
Hardware: Scott van Haastrecht and Thijs Eerens
Additional design team: Pom Smit, Nienke Markus, Tim Nielen, Ruben Maas, Mel Reaven, Gal Kinan, Wouter van Meegdenburg, Elja Rutters, Richelle Smits, Paul Staring and Bram Ockeloen

Voice artist onboarding: Louise Porter
Voice artist Colorado river toad: Molly O’Blivion
voice artist slime mold: Holly Habstritt Gaal
voice artist Camila: Anahita Mekanik

Publication: Rob van Hoesel (TEC Books) and Joost Broeren
Digital strategy: Nienke Huitenga
Social media: Charlotte Tolboom

Partners

Commissioned by: STRP and Breda Photo
Partners: IDFA Doclab & MIT Media Lab
Financially supported by: NL Film Fund, and Creative Industries Fund NL, Amsterdam Fund for the Arts (AFK)
Presented at the Sundance Institute, New Frontier Story Lab 2020 and the Venice Gap-Financing Market 2021

Behind the scenes

For more behind the scenes photos click here.