Get Ready to Meet Dead Relatives in VR

Technology means never having to say goodbye

VR Reunion
Lifewire / Daniel Fishel

I can tell the difference between real and fake emotions—someone who is really going through something versus someone who is just emoting—just as I can tell the difference between a real and virtual entity. But as I watched a video of a mother reuniting with her virtual daughter, a child who tragically died a few years earlier, those perceptions blurred.

The woman wore a VR headset and gloves and because the camera blended the real and virtual world. I could witness the “reunion” pretty much as the mother witnessed it. As the mother stood with her arms outstretched, the little girl ran up to her, looked at her face and asked, “Mom, where were you? I missed you a lot mom.”

And it was devastating.

I don’t think anyone would mistake the VR child for a flesh and blood human, but the effect was strong enough to generate wracking sobs from the mother who desperately reached out to “touch” her child again.

I was struck by the wrongness of the scene. Bringing a VR version of the woman’s daughter to life seemed cruel in a way that having a 20 ft.-tall virtual Tupac rap on stage did not. Yet, the mother was pleased and, I think, comforted by the experience.

Woman and VR daughter
I could barely make it through this video. MCBLife

Rise

Bringing the dead back to life is an idea probably as old as death itself (religions are built around resurrection) and it’s a necromantic concept that thrived in stories, movies and TV shows over the last century and a half.

Despite all those tales, there are no real zombies, Frankenstein monsters, or reanimated corpses coming back home to dinner.

When we die, whatever light animated our physical selves vanishes. But in the modern world, a digital simulacrum can live on forever, and it’s from these digital bits that entire VR selves can be constructed.

The raw stuff of these avatars can be:

  • Images gleaned from photo accounts and social media
  • Audio and video
  • Social media posts
  • 3D scans of our faces and bodies (done in life or death)

Much of this data lives on in local or cloud storage servers. Platforms like Facebook now have processes set up to maintain memorial accounts for departed loved ones.

In the modern world, a digital simulacrum can live on forever, and it’s with these digital bits that entire VR selves can be constructed.

Many celebrity Twitter accounts persist long after the stars stepped onto that great stage in the sky.

And, as I noted earlier, there’s an entire cottage industry around reanimating popular dead celebrity avatars for icons like Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston.

On TV, dead celebrities are turned into product pitchmen. It’s an appalling trend that only reminds us what people will do or do to their relatives for money.

Something Else

This video, though, was all and yet none of those things. Clearly the developers used audio, video, and details about the daughter they gleaned from the mother and the rest of her family (at one point the mother notes that her avatar daughter is wearing the sandals she likes) and eight months of coding to bring the avatar girl to “life.” But it wasn’t in the service of commerce or entertainment. This was about reconnection—one-sided, to be sure, but still reconnection.

The mother reacted with overwhelming emotion, even as she clearly understood the technology in front of her.

The little VR girl could no more honestly react to the mother’s grief than Superman’s AI avatar of his long dead father, Jor-El, could answer unanticipated questions.

Woman and VR daughter
Having her VR daughter ask her where she'd been and tell her that she missed her seemed almost cruel. MCBLife

The limits, like not being able to physically touch her “daughter,” did nothing to diminish the mother’s reaction and what I interpreted as unalloyed joy at seeing her child again.

As a parent I can’t imagine the anguish of losing a child and I suspect I would do anything to see them again. But this digital version and its limits would, for me at least, be a terrible mix of joy and then grief as I inevitably confront those boundaries and then have to remove the VR headset and experience the loss all over again.

That intuition may not be far from the truth. When I asked Dr. Andrew Kent, an adolescent psychiatrist practicing in New York and Medical Director of New York START, Long Island, about the psychological and emotional impact of such an experience, he shared my concerns.

"Wow, it absolutely can stir up symptoms in vulnerable individuals," said Dr. Kent. He explained that we store memories in more primitive parts of the brain connected to emotional regulation.

"This is how Post Traumatic Stress works," he added. "[The experience] could bring up anger [and] sadness and, if a more complicated and unpleasant relationship, re-experiencing trauma."

So What

I suspect some of you may feel differently and will cheer the inevitable rise of the digital deceased. There will be first be dedicated “Digital Reunion” shops where you can go to see your deceased parents, grandparents, and other lost relatives.

Eventually services will emerge that ask for access to the digital corpus of your dead relatives so, for a fee, they can send you a VR file viewable on the headset of your choice.

Maybe your belief system provides an afterlife where all your dead relatives are waiting on the other side to wrap you in their warm embrace. If so, this digital option may sound quaint, but incomplete, because no matter what you believe, a VR version of someone is still no substitute for the real thing.

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