Situated just outside the Assembly Rooms in a suitably futuristic white dome, the Futureplay Virtual Reality Studio features a carefully chosen selection of VR works ranging from documentary through to animation. Here I saw the excellent and engrossing First Impressions, which allows the viewer to see the world through the dewy eyes of a new born baby, and Utopia 6, a cerebral sci-fi that takes place two-hundred years from now. However, I am focusing my attentions here solely on one VR piece, the challenging and thought-provoking VR documentary Munduruku.

Winner of the Alternate Realities Audience award at the Sheffield Docfest,
Munduruku: The Fight to Defend the Heart of the Amazon is a groundbreaking and immersive multi sensory voyage into the outermost reaches of the Amazon rainforest. Made in collaboration with Greenpeace, Munduruku follows the plight of the indigenous Munduruku people, a group who until recent times have lived an untroubled existence in an area around the Tapajos river for centuries.

A uniquely all-encompassing viewing experience, Munduruku is a virtual reality documentary with a difference. As well as merely watching the film using the now customary VR headset and headphone combination, the viewer is also cocooned within these spherical, seed-like pods. The product of pioneering multi-sensory storytellers The Feelies, the pods are infused with a pungent cocktail of subtly variegated sounds, scents and even temperature fluctuations which all work in concert to elicit an acute sense of place.

As well as such auditory and olfactory elements as the calls of tropical birds and the smells of charred wood, there also tactile sensations experienced. For instance, when dropped right into the centre of a village gathering it is possible to tangibly feel the warmth of the coffee given that a real mug has been placed in your hands. Other effects include the use of subtle seat vibrations when placed within a harness and winched up into a tree’s canopy, and what this creates is a profound feeling of empathy with the Munduruku people and their struggles.

As you look out over the Amazon basin from your perch high up above the trees, a voice of God narrator informs you of the sheer gravity of the Munduruku’s predicament. Proposals for a series of hydroelectric dams in the area present a very real threat to their livelihood, with demands having been made to the Brazilian government to intervene. The medium of virtual reality is it seems an ideal one for engaging people with this campaign given its own extraordinary capabilities to immerse the viewer into another world.

Indeed for film maker and VR trailblazer Chris Milk, virtual reality is ‘the ultimate empathy machine’ that has vast potential to be used as a means to educate and inform audiences on pressing social and environmental issues. Milk’s own VR work Clouds Over Sidra (2015) centres around a twelve-year old girl who’s stranded in a Syrian refugee camp, and similarly to Munduruku the viewer enters into a world which they would never otherwise have come into contact with.

‘VR has the potential to actually change the world’ believes Milk, and with such politically potent, perspective altering documentaries as Munduruku and Clouds Over Sidra respectively setting early benchmarks, virtual reality’s remarkable potential may one day be fully realised.