Death is universal, but approaches to it may vary. Recently, for example, the coronavirus pandemic has led to a rise in Zoom funerals and accelerated the embrace of virtual interactions and spaces. These changes raise some other possibilities. What if, for example, you could reunite with your deceased daughter in virtual reality?
This idea may not appeal to everyone; many of the people to whom I described this scenario reacted with aversion. But Jang Ji-sung, who lost her daughter to blood cancer in 2016, welcomed the opportunity to see her daughter again—even if it was just in VR. Jang may not have been the first mother to lose a child, but she is perhaps the first who got to meet her deceased daughter as a VR simulacrum, one that took almost a year to create. Their reunion forms the narrative climax in the South Korean TV documentary Meeting You, which aired in February. A clip from the documentary has more than 20 million views on YouTube.
Meeting You was produced by one of South Korea’s largest broadcasters, Munhwa Broadcasting Corp, which worked with six different studios to create the VR experience. It introduces Jang Ji-sung, whose daughter Nayeon was just 7 when she died, and Nayeon’s surviving family: a father, an older brother, an older sister, and a younger sister. The hourlong special aired in February and can be viewed online (unfortunately, only in Korean).
VR technology is still too young (or, at least, too undeveloped) for it to have developed an independent grammar as an art form. But as film scholar Tom Gunning writes, in the 19th century, inventions such as the photograph and motion picture “were all greeted as technological responses to the ultimate limit to human life, mortality.” They “claimed to preserve human traits (expression, movement, voice) after the subject had died” and were promoted as “an objective form of memory” and “man’s triumph over death.”
But it is difficult to square our present-day appreciation of cinema as an art form with our suspicion of virtual reality and its frequently uncanny reproductions. This is particularly pronounced when the reality being reproduced is an avatar of a real person, and more so when the person reproduced is a deceased beloved, much in the way that a Zoom funeral feels more like a travesty while a Zoom job interview is just mildly annoying and sometimes even more convenient, depending on the circumstances.
Technological resurrection as a response to human mortality is a familiar trope in fiction. But tellingly, it is almost always in a dystopian context. Greg Daniels’ satirical sci-fi comedy Upload, which recently debuted on Amazon, is premised on a future in which humans can have their consciousness “uploaded” into a virtual afterlife and continue to communicate with the living. Upload joins a populous landscape of similar stories, featuring high-tech and often expensive solutions to death. Another sort of parable re-creates, rather than preserving, the consciousness of the deceased. In the “Be Right Back” episode of Black Mirror, for instance, a grieving widow takes advantage of a service that uses her deceased husband’s social media profiles and online footprints to create an A.I. version of her husband, animated in the body of an android clone of her husband.
Nonfiction projects exist too, albeit in a more contemplative vein. James Vlahos’ 2017 project Dadbot features his attempt to re-create the essence of his dying father’s personality in chatbot form. The indie game That Dragon, Cancer was designed by a father as a way to process the gradual death of his son, diagnosed with a rare cancer.
But unlike the text-based Dadbot and the stylized game universe of That Dragon, Cancer, the VR daughter in Meeting You is deliberately realistic. This is perhaps one source of the clip’s popularity—its appeal as a novel spectacle—as well as a cause of the audience’s potential discomfort. My initial reaction to the project was certainly one of unease, particularly once I saw the jerky, puppetlike movements of VR Nayeon: Perhaps these particular puppeteers were acting with the best of intentions, I thought, but ultimately VR Nayeon was wholly controlled by a team of adults. These adults had designed VR Nayeon to act innocent and charming, but I felt manipulated rather than charmed.
In the climactic VR experience that received so much attention in South Korea, the mother, Jang, is shown surrounded by green screens and decked out in her VR accoutrements. The documentary toggles between this studio view and what Jang sees in her headset, and a composite version where Jang interacts with her VR daughter. From the two-dimensional perspective of the documentary audience, Nayeon looks like a computer graphic, if an eerily realistic one. A sobbing Jang attempts to touch her, unsuccessfully. Nayeon says things like “Mom, am I cute?”
At one point, VR Nayeon has her mother touch her hand, and they float into the sky to a twilight-toned afterlife. There is a flying unicorn and the backdrop is purple. Jang and VR Nayeon sit at a table set with a birthday cake and foods that Nayeon loved, we are told—birthday seaweed soup and a plate of honey rice cakes. This brief act ends with VR Nayeon falling asleep after telling her mother that she’s no longer in pain. “I love you, Mom,” she says. The purple sky gives way, and we’re back in the studio as an emotive song plays in the background.
The exchanges between Jang and her daughter are not truly interactive but follow a script. “She was quite different from my Nayeon,” said Jang in the documentary. “At certain moments, when she was far away, I felt a hint of my daughter. When she was running, or sitting.” In part, this detachment has to do with the fact that the real Nayeon would have been 10 but was depicted as 7, the age at which she died. None of this diminishes the quality of Jang’s emotions, however—not even Jang’s own recognition that VR Nayeon is not her daughter. Her anguish feels real.
To better understand how all these and other considerations—corny lines and emotional resonance, narrative choices and ethical quandaries—had been put together, I conducted an email interview with the director and producer of the documentary, Jong-woo Kim. We emailed in Korean, and I translated Kim’s comments into English.
According to Kim, the structured rather than interactive nature of the VR experience was due to budgetary and technical constraints. “But there are microinteractions,” said Kim. “For example, extending a hand or patting the VR Nayeon’s hair might engender a reaction where she extends a hand in turn, or tilts her head, and her facial expression changes. Together, all of this contributed to a more immersive experience.” But the immersiveness was not just a technical project. While multiple VR studios collaborated on creating a realistic voice and gestures for VR Nayeon, much of the research came in the form of meetings and interviews with the mother, aimed at understanding what she wanted. “The idea to have them float into the sky was inspired by interviews with the family,” said Kim. “They told us that they would sometimes have conversations with Nayeon while facing the sky.”
Ahead of the VR experience, the documentary also features interviews with Jang Ji-sung, in which she reminisces about her daughter or talks about her children. These interviews are interspersed with slice-of-life vignettes of the family in the present day. The family history is further explored in the sequel to Meeting You, released March 12, in which it is suggested that Nayeon’s mother harbored various regrets about her inadequacies during the last days of her daughter’s life.
But from the perspective of a viewer, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the follow-up is the seemingly fictionalized voice-over (provided by an adult woman), speaking from what seems to be the perspective of the youngest daughter. According to Kim, this creative decision was inspired by the desire to provide a sense of gentle closure, and to do so, he decided to try to think about death from the perspective of a young child. Kim did not consider the written narration to be a pure invention and said, “We based it on interviews and clips of the youngest daughter”—Nayeon’s sister.
These production details suggest less an independently realistic VR creation—a clone capable of rebelling, in the way of the common science fiction trope—than one whose significance is based on the narrative history of the family, and subject to the manipulation of the documentary producers.
The documentary depicts these manipulations as a success, and the family as happy. “Nayeon’s mother has told us that she thinks of the production and the VR experience as a ‘wonderful dream,’ ” said Kim. But despite the uplifting ending, a nonfiction project like Meeting You presents certain ethical considerations, which don’t quite have the same weight in fictional speculative exercises like Upload. In this particular instance, the postmortem, three-dimensional representation of a child unable to give consent leads to questions about the ethical ambiguities of resurrecting a person as an avatar after they have died, or the ambiguities surrounding the collection and processing of the personal data needed to re-create a person as VR persona. Jong-woo Kim did not see the issue of consent or representation as unique to his project: “Many of the images we see online are probably there without consent,” said Kim, adding that he considered the family had given consent by proxy.
The family was selected because it had demonstrated a clear desire for this VR reunification. But given the unprecedented and simultaneously public nature of this VR experience, there were a lot of unknowns about how the experience might affect Nayeon’s parents and siblings.
To prepare Jang Ji-sung for the potentially traumatic physical and mental effects of the VR experience, Kim explained that the producers met with the family therapist. They proceeded with the understanding that the experience would be a unique, momentous event, preparing to the best of their ability through long interviews with Jang and her family. “We were careful to focus on their goals as much as possible. We did not try to analyze or heal anyone at any point. We stuck to our original focus of helping Jang Ji-sung’s wish to see her daughter again come true. But within these self-imposed guidelines we did avoid going in a direction that would force the mother to relive her trauma. Rather, we tried to focus on the positive memories,” said Kim.
VR has been used to help treat soldiers with PTSD. There is also research that supports the idea that storytelling can offset VR motion sickness and also that VR helps relieve pain during childbirth, suggesting that virtual reality can act as both a receptacle for stories and as a storytelling tool in and of itself. In Meeting You, the storytelling aspect of VR is strong. In this sense, the doll-like VR Nayeon does not come across so much as a perversion of a technophobic nightmare (e.g., like the eerily realistic android in Black Mirror’s “Be Right Back”) but more like an artistic tribute.
There is a strong resemblance between the promises of resurrection via VR and the rhetoric that heralded the invention of other once-new technologies like the moving picture. Perhaps once the novelty of VR wears off, its pretenses to realism will no longer be met with suspicion. Meeting You, whatever its inadequacies, does present a compelling case for VR as a creative medium (much like writing or painting) for processing death rather than a creepy technophilic panacea that denies death, with all the interpretative complications that a creative medium entails.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.