When I got a press release inviting me to fully immerse myself into a multi-sensory extended reality (XR) story, I almost circularly filed it. Yes, the title “U.S. Premiere of a Multisensory XR Story Symbiosis at PAM CUT // Center for an Untold Tomorrow” sounded intriguing. But after experiencing an overabundance of screen time for over two years, I wasn’t sure if I was up for yet another “virtual” session, even if this particular XR event contained an in-person component.
Some days I feel as though I’m living in some Sci-Fi B-movie. Yes, I appreciated the connective nature of technology to keep us together somewhat during this extended self-isolation brought about by Covid. However, my experiences covering both South by Southwest (SXSW) and the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) left me feeling a bit disjointed. My body kept telling me I had to limit my consumption of technology in order to save my soul. Simply put, I needed human touch.
Attending the US premiere of Symbiosis at PAM CUT
Yet, the wording of this particlar press release intrigued me. This seemed to be an actual interactive experience where I could participate as both spectator and performer. “Through individualized haptic suits and soft robotics, as well as taste and smell-based story elements, the human body will be experientially redesigned to merge with technology and nature itself. Brought together in one VR experience for six participants, you explore a world changed beyond recognition which you can taste, hear, see and feel.”
I began to wonder what I might discover by immersing all my senses into what was described in the press materials as a world set 200 years in the future where a “rich biosphere of mixed life-forms has taken over the earth: human-animal, and human-machine hybrids.” So, I signed up for a slot.
Beginning my multi-sensory journey
After I arrived at the PAM/UNCUT and signed the requisite release form, I sat through a short demonstration that tried to explain how we would all going to embody this world some 200 years into the future as seen through the body of a Colorado River toad, Monarch butterfly, slime mold, or anglerfish. We were informed that the taste (food) portion of this experience isn’t available for this preview but that through this suit and the accompanying VR headset, we will experience the remaining senses of touch, sight, smell, and audio where we can envision a post-human world where there is no competition, only symbiosis.
After someone else said they wanted to be the butterfly, I settled on playing the head of the anglerfish. I’ve always felt a primitive connection to water as a means of healing my soul, and was unaware of just how hideous looking an anglerfish truly was.
I navigated multiple red cables and shiny metallic poles to don a white soft robotic suit. Now three of us were connected centipede-like to play the body of this fishy creature. My VR headset got tweaked a few times too many, as I waited impatiently for the experience to begin. Already my hands were sweating inside this suit that brought to mind images of the Stay Puft Marshmallow man in Ghostbusters.
For fifteen minutes, I felt like a fish head swimming all around an ever-changing ocean floor. My body bumped up against other sea life and even consumed selected plants. By following the current wherever it went, I felt connected to the water in a visceral manner similar to when I go snorkeling.
Yet once we descended into the darkness well beyond where snorkelers venture, I felt a painful tinge that I was alone in this world. I might have been connected to the other participants from a physical standpoint. But I never felt the actual presence of anyone else even when we emerged from the darkness into the light. Yet, somehow I felt more interconnected to the planet as a whole.
Can I continue these connections in real life?
The quiet silence that filled the room when the six of us exited the space told me we were all processing what just happened to us.
After I returned home and viewed the press photos, I felt a twinge of regret that I only experienced the vantage point of the anglerfish. The Colorado River Toad, Monarch butterfly, or even the slimy toad seemed to be taken on journeys that looked so much more interesting from a visual perspective at least. Am I experiencing virtual FOMO?
Then I realized I chose the anglerfish as it was the only creature that moved solely through the water. As I sit and type, I’m overlooking Green Lake in Seattle where I’m currently dog-sitting, I’m reminded once again of water’s healing power. My mind drifted from my writing to savoring the sensation of moving through the water as part of an anglerfish. I closed my eyes. Now, I can feel myself gliding around Green Lake even though I’m inside a warm house. Yes, I’m by myself. But I’m no longer feeling alone during this water experience but rather connected to a universe beyond myself.
Perhaps I was more connected during this experience than I first thought. What I do with these newfound connections remains to be seen.
For those who might want to catch this experience for themselves, Symbiosis runs from November 12, 2022 – February 12, 2023, at the Portland Art Museum. Information about future shows can be found on Polymorf’s website.