This week, a woman in South Korea was reunited with her dead seven-year-old daughter in virtual reality for a TV show. Unsurprisingly, the internets reaction was swift and strong, with many people condemning the idea as Black Mirror-esque.
But I can see why she did it.
When youve lost someone close to you especially suddenly its natural to think about what youd say if you could just see them one more time. My dad took his life when I was five years old, and Ive thought a million times about conversations Id have loved to have with him. As a technologist, Ive thought of ways tech could make this happen, such as by using photos and videos of him as training material for an AI.
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Meeting my dad in virtual reality would, of course, not be the same as seeing him in the flesh (which isnt possible yet?). But technology has already advanced to the point that we can create very convincing deepfakes, and recreating someones presence in virtual reality isnt much more advanced than that. Like it or not, reuniting with our dead loved ones is likely to become a commercially-available service in the next few years and in the meantime, we need to prepare ourselves for the emotional implications.
Therell be a lot of them. For instance, what if the dead persons avatar isnt quite right? What if its too cartoony, the voice is wrong, or it walks into a piece of furniture and glitches? How will the bereaved brain cope with something that looks like their loved one, but is ever so slightly off? Someone still grieving could easily enter a dangerous spiral from something as simple as a bug in the software.
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Motion capture actress Yumi Ueno wearing a motion capture suit performs for adult game company Illusions virtual reality production at a motion capture studio in Tokyo, Japan
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Director Taro Kambe (R) directs actress Yuri Oshikawa and an actor during a rehearsal for Rockets 3D virtual reality adult film at the company’s studio in Tokyo, Japan
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A virtual reality gamer lies on the floor as he demonstrates VR JCCs virtual reality adult game Lets Play with Nanai! using a VR headset and a sex doll at the company’s SOHO office in Tokyo, Japan
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Adult video actress Yuri Oshikawa performs a kiss scene in front of a FutureLeaps 3D virtual reality camera, equipped with a human ear-shaped mic, during a rehearsal for Rockets 3D VR adult film at the companys studio in Tokyo, Japan
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Motion capture actress Yumi Ueno wears a motion capture suit as she performs for adult game company Illusions virtual reality production at a motion capture studio in Tokyo, Japan
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A Virtual Reality gamer reacts as he demonstrates VR JCCs virtual reality adult game Lets Play with Nanai! with VR headset at the company’s SOHO office in Tokyo, Japan
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A monitor shows animated data as motion capture actress Yumi Ueno wearing a motion capture suit performs for adult game company Illusions virtual reality production at a motion capture studio in Tokyo, Japan
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A Virtual Reality gamer lies on the floor after he demonstrated VR JCC’s virtual reality adult game Lets Play with Nanai! using a VR headset and a sex doll at the company’s SOHO office in Tokyo, Japan
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A monitor shows adult video actress Yuri Oshikawa performing during a rehearsal for ROCKETs 3D virtual reality adult film at the company’s studio in Tokyo, Japan
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Motion capture actress Yumi Ueno wearing a motion capture suit performs for adult game company Illusions virtual reality production at a motion capture studio in Tokyo, Japan
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Director Taro Kambe (R) directs actress Yuri Oshikawa and an actor during a rehearsal for Rockets 3D virtual reality adult film at the company’s studio in Tokyo, Japan
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A virtual reality gamer lies on the floor as he demonstrates VR JCCs virtual reality adult game Lets Play with Nanai! using a VR headset and a sex doll at the company’s SOHO office in Tokyo, Japan
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Adult video actress Yuri Oshikawa performs a kiss scene in front of a FutureLeaps 3D virtual reality camera, equipped with a human ear-shaped mic, during a rehearsal for Rockets 3D VR adult film at the companys studio in Tokyo, Japan
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Motion capture actress Yumi Ueno wears a motion capture suit as she performs for adult game company Illusions virtual reality production at a motion capture studio in Tokyo, Japan
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A Virtual Reality gamer reacts as he demonstrates VR JCCs virtual reality adult game Lets Play with Nanai! with VR headset at the company’s SOHO office in Tokyo, Japan
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A monitor shows animated data as motion capture actress Yumi Ueno wearing a motion capture suit performs for adult game company Illusions virtual reality production at a motion capture studio in Tokyo, Japan
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A Virtual Reality gamer lies on the floor after he demonstrated VR JCC’s virtual reality adult game Lets Play with Nanai! using a VR headset and a sex doll at the company’s SOHO office in Tokyo, Japan
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A monitor shows adult video actress Yuri Oshikawa performing during a rehearsal for ROCKETs 3D virtual reality adult film at the company’s studio in Tokyo, Japan
Equally, those providing the simulation are unlikely to be doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. What if youre in the middle of a painful conversation with your late family member, and the VR headset gets switched off because its someone elses turn? What if, in order to afford a session, you have to put up with your dead child spouting advertising messages every fifteen minutes? What if a hacker gets into the system and makes your loved one say abhorrent things to you? Can any kind of therapy undo that kind of emotional damage?
Of course, heartbroken humans already have other ways to rediscover their dead. Ive had countless dreams about seeing my dad again, and it could be argued that virtual reality is essentially the same, only with better graphics. Isnt it only fair that people who dont or cant dream of their loved ones can connect with them another way?
Well, no. For starters, your dreams are likely to be hazy, pulled directly from your own memories. An AI trying to approximate your grandma from a limited database of video recordings might get it wrong, and overwrite your real memories in the process. Did she always sound slightly autotuned? Was she always so short with you?
Thats not to say the idea has no merit at all. Ive had extensive therapy for my dads death, and some of the exercises involved things like talking to an empty chair that I imagined was him, or to a photo, or envisioning going back in time to revisit the scenes of happy memories. Some of those exercises were helpful, and enabled me to move a little further forward.
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Perhaps hearing my dad say I love you, I miss you, it wasnt your fault in his own voice would give the closure that imagine those words has never achieved. When a male radio producer read my dads suicide note aloud, it affected me completely differently, even though Id read the words in my head a thousand times.
Still, if VR grief therapy is going to be helpful and not hurtful, it will need to be available under supervision, and not all the time. If there was a box in the corner of my living room with a version of my dad inside, I cant say I wouldnt be tempted to go and live in that fantasy and neglect my real life and Im relatively well-recovered. Someone bereaved last week might well waste away in a pixelated world where they and their lost loved one could be together.
As with everything tech, the difference that virtually reanimating the dead makes to the human world depends entirely on how its implemented. Meeting a version of your child controlled by a trained therapist as a way to help you to heal could be a gift, whereas meeting one controlled by Facebook as a way to keep you engaged with the platform could be a curse. I suspect therell be some of both, so its up to us what kinds of virtual worlds we create. Just make sure that before you enter, youve thought about what lies ahead.