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.

“Virtual reality can be so exclusive, especially with a project like ‘Symbiosis,’ completely physical and on location. You must be there and talk to people, smell them and touch them. It’s an important part of our work, but we want to reach a broader discussion,” van Brakel tells Variety.

Presented in this year’s DocLab Competition for Immersive Non-Fiction, “Symbiosis” – produced by Corine Meijers and set 200 years in the future “on the ruins of inhospitable Anthropocene” – is a performative, multisensory and multiuser VR experience, in which the human body is “redesigned.” Inspired by Donna Haraway’s book “Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene” (as well as Yuval Noah Harari’s “Homo Deus”), its intention is to show the symbiotic exchange of genetic and technological traits between people and other creatures.

“At Polymorf, we are getting more and more interested in non-human centered storytelling. It’s always about us and it has become a bit boring,” says van Brakel about the Dutch design collective.

“We have already made that shift from creating something that’s there for the audience to look at to something that puts them in the middle of the experience. Now, they can become another entity.”

Clad in custom-made suits, forcing them to assume the position of their character, the participants can become a Slime Mold, Colorado River Toad or Camilla, the symbiont child of a human and a monarch caterpillar. Later, they get access to a particular scenario experienced in the collectively shared VR space.

“I enjoyed the process of making these suits – it was completely awkward and strange,” says Meeuwenoord, admitting that some of their initial ideas were much more extreme.

“You immediately feel something new, when you change your position like that. My 82-year-old mother decided to experience it and I was worried, as these suits are quite heavy. But she was genuinely excited about it. This whole space is designed as a habitat, but a more theatrical set up might be one of the things we will look into next.”

“When you think about symbiosis, kinship, creating relationships with each other, it helps when you don’t share the same information. It pays off to share it. Donna sparked this idea of healing the planet by interconnecting the genetic material of endangered species. We are curious beings and we want to experience what it would be like, being someone – or something – else.”

While the team also decided to work with smell and taste, with all-vegetarian snacks designed by the chefs from Michelin-starred restaurant De Karpendonkse Hoeve, they needed to find the right balance.

“There is always this danger that you do too much, but we want to design for the whole body,” says Meeuwenoord. “Part of your experience happens through eating, so the story had to accommodate it, exploring the whole idea of food. What is food? Who is food? We think we are on the top of the food chain, but what happens once you change that?”

“We tend to focus on the brain, but knowledge is also distributed through the body. It’s interesting to feel how your big toe experiences the thing you are looking at,” adds van Brakel.

“We actually want to create discomfort. The Toad cheeks, when I first tested them, felt really strange and not immersive at all. After a while, I started to miss them. Our objective is to go on a search for other perspectives.”

The “Symbiosis” experience was part of IDFA DocLab, in collaboration with Eye Xtended VR.