[INTERVIEW] The controversial reality of bringing back a loved one

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[INTERVIEW] The controversial reality of bringing back a loved one

A television documentary featuring a grieving mom meeting a digital version of her dead daughter recreated via virtual reality (VR) opened up emotionally-charged reactions and, more importantly, a plethora of ethical quandaries concerning the notion of digital immortality.

As the CEO of Vive Studios (not related to HTC’s Vive Studios), the Korean computer graphics company that generated the digital persona of the departed, Stanley Kim wants to engage in more of such projects to help aid the grieving process of losing a loved one.

The documentary titled “Meeting You,” aired by Korean broadcaster MBC on Feb. 6, brought together Jang Ji-sung and her daughter Kang Na-yeon who passed away in 2016 at the age of just 7 after being diagnosed with a rare disease called hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis.

One of the key moments of the documentary is the first encounter between the mother, wearing a headset and gloves studded with sensors, where she strokes the avatar of Na-yeon with trembling hands, saying “I’ve missed you.”

Outside the computer-generated scene, however, Jang was seen waving her arms aimlessly in the air.

In the video clip excerpt of the TV program on YouTube, which attracted 13 million hits as of the weekend, some viewers praised the project for allowing the mother to meet and talk with her deceased daughter, albeit digitally.

Those comments were challenged by others saying that the VR-based interaction only conjures up fake feelings and the experience will deepen the mother’s feeling of loss.

The clash is an example of the heightened conflict in views over how much technology should interfere with everyday life and whether it can help or hinder how people deal with grief.

Kim is on the side of those with a more optimistic outlook, saying that the VR-based reunion could help heal grieving people especially when used in conjunction with psychiatrists or clinical psychologists.

Multiple hospitals including a leading university hospital have reached out to the company based in Seoul and suggested collaborative research designed to explore the possibility of the simulated experience addressing depression, according to Kim.

The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with CEO Kim and Lee Hyun-suk, director at Vive Studios who led the VR project, to discuss the company’s goals and future moves in relation to immersive VR content.


From top counterclockwise: A digital avatar of Na-yeon created by Vive Studios. Vive Studios CEO Stanley Kim, right, and director Lee Hyun-suk hold the VR headset used to create a digital version of Na-yeon last Thursday at the company’s office in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul. A screen capture of the documentary “Meeting You.” A child actor helps form the deceased child’s avatar. [PARK SANG-MOON, VIVE STUDIOS, JOONGANG PHOTO]

Q. How was the documentary made possible?

Kim: The MBC production team sent us an email detailing the outline of the documentary. They were looking for a company that would be able to bring Na-yeon back in digital form. Once I read it, I was tempted to join. With 15 designers including Lee, it took nearly one year to finish it and cost around 50 million won [$42,000].

Lee: The team approached Vive Studios because they saw the news reports on us winning awards for a VR animation that we made, which was titled “Volt.”

What made you decide to join the TV program?

Kim: Many VR companies are focused on providing games to just entertain people. But I have always wanted to take a different approach to the use of VR and connect with humans or their feelings. In doing so, storytelling is critical, something we have honed in on for making the VR film. Since we have expertise on story development using VR and other technologies, I thought Vive Studios is fit to collaborate with the broadcasting company.

Did you expect the program’s video clip to go viral?

Kim: While team members never saw it coming, I figured that the reactions it received were somewhat inevitable.

Lee: The documentary poses questions like whether technology can comfort humans. The mom’s desire to touch and meet her daughter and the technology that allows for the meeting generated unexpected reactions.

What do you think about the differing opinions on the simulated experience, and what do you think of the belief that digital media will only accentuate feelings of loss rather than bring closure?

Kim: That was the most concerning part, so I was hesitant at first. But I think we can develop it into a better project with the help of psychiatrists. Since the story is about healing, I think we can bring about positive effects.

Lee: A person might have experienced negative side effects if he or she was in an unhealthy condition. But the production team was careful to choose someone with a healthy mindset. While running a blog, the mother documented her memories with her daughter and hoped to keep those memories positive despite people saying that she should get over her loss and move on. But since the death was so sudden, the mother felt like she didn’t have the chance to tell her daughter everything she wanted to. She badly wanted to see Na-yeon in her dreams, but that never happened. So, she was thankful for the interaction and for the chance to let her daughter know what was on her mind.

Do you want to develop the content into a business model?

Kim: It can go in two directions. One way would be for public interest. By working with health professionals or hospitals, the simulation can help treat mental illnesses. A number of great figures in history can be also brought back to share meaningful messages. The other concerns entertainment. As done in several projects outside of Korea, we could revive legendary musicians like Freddie Mercury. But of all things, we now need to grow the VR market to make the technology more accessible.

Is there any special intention or meaning in the setting and the words from the simulated Na-yeon?

Lee: The setting is based on the mother’s memories with Na-yeon ?- from a park shimmering in the glow of a sunset, the child’s shoes, clothes and toys. Na-yeon first appears as a butterfly and flies away as a butterfly in the end. They are all reminiscent of good memories with her daughter, which increased immersion. She attaches special meaning to each item.

Could you explain the technology used to generate the lifelike experience?

Lee: In restoring Na-yeon’s image, we use 3-D scanning to approximate her movements, voice and facial expressions. But since Na-yeon had passed away, we used a child actor that was the same age as her. After sifting through Na-yeon’s digital images and videos, our team captured facial expressions and movements unique to the child and let the actor act that way to create the simulated graphic. In terms of the voice, that was trickier, since there were only a few voice recordings we had to find similar voices and also recruit some voice actors. Then, we extracted the voices that had similarities.

BY PARK EUN-JEE [park.eunjee@joongang.co.kr]
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