Every day there is the distinct possibility that someone close to you will lose their life. For most, the thought of losing a friend, partner or family member is too unbearable to imagine. Even the feeling, that when it's over — it's over — can undo reality. As the years go on, it's natural to develop ways to cope with death that go beyond distraction. But what if we could experience and even share the process of closure in virtual reality (VR)? Consider Jang Ji-sung, a South Korean woman who lost her daughter Nayeon to an incurable disease in 2016. Three years later, Jang may have been last to imagine a reunion with Nayeon — in virtual reality — created for a real-life documentary about the power of VR, and broadcast on television.
South Korea broadcasts VR documentary
South Korea's Middle East Broadcasting Center uploaded a clip of its visionary documentary to its YouTube page, entitled "I Met You," on Thursday. The footage alternates between "meat space" reality of ordinary life, and the virtual one, where a VR simulation of her daughter Nayeon resides.
In reality, Jang stands before a sprawling green-screen, her face hidden behind a VR headset, her hands encased in (ostensibly) haptic gloves. Via VR simulation, she speaks to her daughter, fingers subtly brushing through her hair, and they hold hands.
It may be an illusion — one she knows can't last — but sometimes the illusion is more comforting.
It comes as no surprise that Jang tears up when hers and Nayeon's eyes meet. The rest of the family — the father, brother and sister — look on at Jang, but also into the empty space where — only one frame away — something of their sister still exists.
"Maybe it's a real paradise," Jang said about the VR reunion, in an AJU Business Daily report. "I met Nayeon, who called me with a smile, for a very short time, but it's a very happy time. I think I've had the dream I've always wanted."
VR based on real memories
Indeed, the AJU Business Daily report also explains how the production team endured eight emotional months on the project. The virtual park is designed to reflect a real-world memory of Jang's — where she and her daughter frequently met — and the team used motion-capture technology to capture the intricate movements of a child actor, to emulate the digital model on which they eventually superimposed the image of Nayeon.
Some might argue that the realness of virtual reality depends on whether or not we're moved. Countless works of science fiction films and literature have asked the question, in many different ways: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? asked writer Philip K. Dick, in the novel later adapted into the cyberpunk masterpiece we know as "Blade Runner." Is the Matrix real? asked the character Neo, in the film about red and blue pills.
It's natural to worry about losing yourself in the appealling fantasies of VR — but as it matures into something that moves us to tears, using our fondest memories — we may find that the truly interesting engineering will at times outpace imagination.