A grieving mother meets her deceased daughter in VR in this tragic, unsettling documentary

A South Korean TV documentary that aired on Feburary 6 depicts Jang Ji-sung, mother of four, donning a headset, haptic gloves, and meeting a virtual recreation of her daughter Nayeon. 

An otherwise novel scene is quickly rendered tragic: Nayeon died in 2016 from an incurable disease at only seven years old. 

According to Aju Business Daily, the documentary production team spent eight months building Nayeon, including her actual voice. An elaborate park scene was the backdrop, where the two played and celebrated Nayeon's birthday. 

A 10-minute excerpt from the documentary, shared by Middle East Broadcasting Company, shows Jang Ji-sung meeting the virtual effigy for the first time. 

It's a pretty difficult watch. There's the eerie fact that none of it is real, but the pain Jang experiences is clear and sharp. She cries immediately and appears hesitant to interact with VR Nayeon, but eventually settles in, talking to and playing with the strange reflection of someone she gave birth to and clearly loved. Her remaining family watches the scene unfold, sharing some tears. 

A Futurism article on the documentary posits that interacting with the deceased in VR could become the norm. It points out a couple startups are already working on creating digital avatars and chatbots of the deceased. The popular tactic appears to be compiling all existing data of the person—pictures, video, audio—and then using machine-learning algorithms to create Cortana-esque digital assistants. 

As unsettling as it is for the detached viewer, I can't really call this kind of thing dystopian, at least conceptually. The underlying motives of tech companies often pivot to profit and data collection at all costs, so it's easy to imagine cynical uses of this technology. But maybe we can squeeze one by capitalism.

Death is weird and grief never really quits. We put bodies in coffins and line up to look at them. Sometimes we burn the bodies and put them in jars. I'm pretty sure my grandpa is in a closet somewhere. Seeing him move and talk again rather than fade in my memory actually sounds nice. Healthy for me? Unclear. But nice? Yeah, nice.

James Davenport

James is stuck in an endless loop, playing the Dark Souls games on repeat until Elden Ring and Silksong set him free. He's a truffle pig for indie horror and weird FPS games too, seeking out games that actively hurt to play. Otherwise he's wandering Austin, identifying mushrooms and doodling grackles.