Korean Mother Reunites with Deceased Daughter in Virtual Reality
Could VR eventually replace psychic mediums? Or does this cross the boundaries of ethical technology uses?
The South Korean TV station MBC has broadcast an intimate encounter of a grieving mother reuniting with her daughter’s virtual reality avatar. For some, it has “dystopia” written all over it. The grieving mother is emotionally overwhelmed by the encounter which appears real to her while a programming code plays the daughter who no longer exists. Even worse, this happens in a setting of TV entertainment that transforms this intimate and painful moment into “entertainment”.
Does this use-case cross the ethical boundaries? It is quite disruptive and does get us all talking and wondering, alright, about what other uses that push the envelope such a technology could be put to in the future.
The deceased child, seven-year-old Nayeon fell ill and died suddenly of a rare and incurable hereditary disease known as hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis three years ago. The child had died within a month of being taken ill. The mother, Jang Ji-sung was able to “reunite” with her daughter in virtual reality thanks to the work of a production team that recreated a virtual Nayeon over a period of 8 months by using photos, videos, family stories as well as 3D scans from her younger sister. The virtual reunion was broadcast in a TV documentary called “Meeting You”.
The production team also collected information from girls who are about Nayeon’s age and then used a deep learning process of the one minute data of Nayeon’s voice that the team already had to recreate her voice, movements along with her facial expressions.
Check video below (in Korean):
The team worked with a group of 7-year olds to best portray Nayeon as she had looked in real life. The motion capture used was based on Nayeon’s past videos.
Here is the image of the virtual Nayeon put together by the team:
Through voice recognition technology, the daughter’s avatar was able to react to the mother’s voice and even engage in simple dialogue. The mother, in turn, is able to see her own hands in virtual reality: she wears haptic gloves that give her some rudimentary feeling of touch. The developers recreated, in VR, the actual park where both mother and daughter met in real life. These environments were digital replicas of the places both mother and daughter had visited together when the daughter was still alive.
The virtual reunion was a moving one. The mother was equipped with virtual reality goggles as well as a pair of haptic gloves. As she was searching for her daughter, a small virtual voice called out “Umma” (Korean for “mum”). A small girl who looks and sounds like her departed daughter then approaches the mother. The mother uncontrollably breaks into tears when she comes face-to-face with the virtual avatar of her daughter.
The reunion was set in a virtual park which was a recreation of the real park that mother and daughter had visited while she was still alive. The movement of a child actor were recorded through motion capture technology and these were subsequently used as the model for the virtual Nayeon.
The mother was able to caress the virtual being by using haptic gloves:-
It is difficult to understand the ramifications of such a technology at the moment. The positive side is that it could be used in the future to help people cope with grief in their own unique way. But it does create some ethical gray areas as we cannot fully comprehend the effects of using VR in this way.
Technology is Slowly Transcending Death
There is already a growing movement of people wanting to “live” beyond death through digital replicas or holograms of themselves. Star Trek star William Shatner had once dabbled in the idea of having virtual reality holograms of a person recorded during their lifetime being stored or embedded on their tombstone for their bereaved. He even went ahead and had his appearance preserved in this manner.
In Japan, Yoshiyuki Kator, the managing director of a gravestone manufacturer, had an augmented reality app developed that bereaved family and friends can set up as a virtual grave in real locations for the deceased. There is even a band that went on a world tour with a hologram of their dead band mate.
There is also the XR company Worldwide XR that specializes in XR technology and holds the rights to many deceased athletes, actors and artists.
Some long dead actors have even been brought to life through computer-generated images. The U.S. actor James Dean died in 1955 but is taking the lead in the war film “Finding Jack”. He was inserted into the film using CGI visual effects. In the future, it would even be possible for kids to talk to long dead historical figures in the classroom by using their virtual reality, augmented reality or mixed reality devices.
The new Star Wars film also features the face of the late Carrie Fisher which has been superimposed over another actress’s face in order to preserve the role.
Deepfake Technology Will Unlock New Possibilities
Deepfake is a technology that’s being used to created manipulated videos as well as other digital representations through the use of complex Artificial Intelligence (AI) that makes fabricated sounds and images appear real. Deepfake could soon be used to create authentic-looking and sounding representations for public consumption, especially as the technology increasingly becomes more accessible to the public. The deepfake AI-based methods requires a large number of photos of a person to give the best results.
Back to the mother and daughter reunion in virtual reality, what matters at the end is how the mother feels. Ethical questions might arise but if the digital recreations help the mother alleviate the sense of grief and feel better, then the technology will have served its positive and ethical purpose. The emotional virtual reunion has garnered 6 million views on YouTube so far:-