News and Commentary

Too Far? Mother Reunited With Deceased Daughter In Virtual Reality Demo.
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 9, 2020: A visitor wears a virtual reality headset at a two-day festival marking Russian Science Day, at the Technograd innovation and education complex in the VDNKh Exhibition Centre; the programme of the festival includes guided tours, master classes and lectures; Russian Science Day is celebrated on 8 February.
Artyom GeodakyanTASS via Getty Images

Could there be a day when those who have passed away can be visited by their loved ones in a virtual reality simulation? One South Korean mother recently provided a small glimpse into this possible future.

A Korean TV special called “Meeting You” recently explored a family’s grief over the loss of its seven-year-old daughter and built to a rather bizarre climax when the mother reunited with the girl in a virtual reality that included audio.

“Not only was the girl fully replicated in 3D, able to move around and interact, but the mother was given touch-sensitive gloves to accompany her [virtual reality] headset, and she was able to walk around a limited green-screen set,” reports Kotaku.

As seen in the clip below, the mother, Ji-sung, breaks down into tears as she looks upon her daughter’s virtual avatar, exclaiming how badly she misses her.

“Mom missed you so much,” Ji-sung says through her tears. “I want to hug you. I missed you so much.”

“Mom, do I look pretty? I do, right?” the virtual daughter replies.

“You are so pretty,” Ji-sung says right back.

The little girl, Nayeon, died in 2016 from an incurable disease. As the meeting unfolds, Ji-sung celebrates Nayeon’s birthday as they enjoy some virtual honey rice sweets, a cake, and Nayeon’s favorite seaweed soup.

The team behind the virtual reality demonstration spent a full eight months recreating her. RoadtoVR provided some background to this process:

Developed by South Korean startup Vive Studios (no relation to HTC’s Vive Studios), the virtual Nayeon was created over the course of eight months using a variety of techniques. Motion capture not only recorded an adult actor’s movements, but also facial expressions, some of which were acted out based on video and photos of the real-world Nayeon.

High-resolution photographs were taken in a 3D capture technique called photogrammetry. Nayeon’s little sister, a spitting image of her older sibling, was used as the basis of the character model.

Although not apparent in the video above, the studio also added a degree of liveliness to the character by integrating voice recognition and a basic AI, which would let the pair have a basic conversation. Responses were created based off of family interviews and videos.

In the end, revitalizing the image of a deceased person isn’t exactly new, and a bevy of examples come to mind: Fred Astaire dancing with a Dirt DevilTupac holograms, and more recently the litany of deepfakes that make you question whether famous actors are still alive or not. And much like those early CG humans and carefully contorted deepfake masks, Vive Studios’ tailor-made VR experience is no doubt impressive for a short while too, but at this point it’s really no more than a carefully orchestrated funerary rite.

According to IGN, companies have been exploring the possibility of reuniting families with dead loved ones for the past few years, though experts have expressed concern that the process could be harmful to the grieving process.

“Interacting with deceased loved ones is something that has yet to be fully explored yet by [virtual reality] technology,” reported the outlet. “Despite some concerns that it could negatively affect the grieving process, there are a handful of companies that are currently exploring [virtual reality] capabilities in this area.”