Talking to the Dead in Virtual Graveyards: Digital Death and Virtual Resurrection

The dead have always tried to speak to us. Walk through almost any graveyard and you will see epitaphs written by those whose physical remains have long since blended with the soil while their words live on. Such words give the living a sense of the character of the person interred beneath the stone. Here are a couple of examples of what can be learned of the character of a person from what they had carved on their tombstones.


tombstone2.jpg Those were the good old days of analog memories, but advances in technology indicate that those days may be about to come to an end.

 Have you ever wondered what would happen to your Facebook account when your mortality was finally verified?  Well, you have the choice of having your account deleted or memorialized. This can be set up through your Facebook security menu.


  If you sign up for a memorial account, when you die, your account will still appear but with the word, ‘remembering’ placed in front of the profile name. Here is Whitney Houston’s memorial account.


 Visitors to a memorial account can view the person’s history and photos as well as leave memorial messages.

 For years, digital cemeteries have been popping up online and, physically, in places around the globe. For those that require physical access, a member must put all the deceased person’s digital information (photos, videos, documents)  on a typical USB stick. The stick is, then, put it in a digital cemetery. Those who would like to view this information would have to go to the ‘cemetery’, retrieve the stick, and look at its contents in a private room.


This, of course, begs the question as to why the family of the deceased wouldn’t simply distribute copies of the information to friends and family without having the need for a digital repository/graveyard.

 The far more common form of digital cemetery can be found online. They offer a variety of services from designing the tombstone, choosing the location to place the tombstone (field, forest, seaside), to adding music. Most will allow you to write a personal remembrance and allow visitors to leave messages and sometimes digital flowers. Whether they will ever give the personal satisfaction of visiting an actual graveyard is difficult to assess. To me, the fact that they are digital, make them feel rather impersonal.

 But the landscape of digital death is now changing. The old digital age has been replaced by the new digital age; the age of virtual reality. Virtual reality can do things for the dead that have not been done before, like, for instance, resurrect them.

 Steve Koutsouliotas and Nick Stavrou were longtime friends who both lost their fathers. In their grief, they began to wonder if digitally reproducing their fathers would help them come to grips with their losses. Thus arose the concept of Project Elysium. Project Elysium exists to answer one question: If you had the choice to meet with and talk to some loved one who had passed away, would you do it?

 Both Koutsouliotas and Stavrou worry that the experience might prove too traumatic for some people. “We aren’t chasing realism; in fact we are aiming more towards hyper-realism,” says Stavrou. In other words, they want the participant to continually be aware of the fact that what they are experiencing is not real. “It wouldn’t overwhelm you so much that it takes the experience away, but it would visually keep reminding you where you are,” Stavrou emphasizes.

 It is necessary to keep in mind that both developers work in gaming, They understand the power of virtual reality and how it can fool the mind into believing the experience it is having is real. For this reason, they have employed grief counselors to help them build an emotionally satisfying experience. A person who wants to meet with a lost loved one must wait for a specified time before having this meeting. The grieving process must have been already rationalized to some degree. The participant will only have a limited time to visit with the person they lost. They may return to the visit, but only after a break. There will also be a debriefing program built in to help the participant assess the experience before returning to the actual world. As Stavrou notes, “This is a serious service and we don’t know what ramifications things can have. This is all a new frontier.”

 Currently, the service is being purposely underdeveloped to make it less ‘real’ than it could be. They use photos to build the avatar. Then, they work with the client to fine-tune the avatar to express certain idiosyncrasies. They fully understand that more realism is possible, but for now, they only want the client to have a one way conversation with the avatar. It is also possible to use audio recordings to allow the avatar to say a few phrases but it won’t really be anything close to a true, interactive conversation.

 That said, it is clear we are venturing into a new frontier here. As technology advances, programmers could gather together a compendium of information about a person from videos, chats, photos, recordings, and writings to construct a far more realistic avatar. Avatars will someday reach a point where they will become nearly indistinguishable from the real person they are modeled on, at least in a VR environment. If self-learning, neural net programs are thrown into the mix, fully conversant avatars may be the result. At the ultimate end, we may even have realistic looking robots which could do all of this. Actually, we are closing in on this with every passing day, but we still have a long way to go before any of these digital re-creations can pass the Turing test.

 The developers of Project Elysium have other uses for their project. If you wanted to create your own avatar before you die, you can work with them to design it. Wouldn’t you like to speak to your future grandchildren or great grandchildren? How about those people who you may not have time to say goodbye to? Yes, it’s the digital age’s equivalent of the epitaph, but much more so. In the future, VR technology is more likely to become available to the general public and, when this happens, expect virtual epitaphs and resurrections to become the norm.

 The developers also have the idea of allowing clients to speak to famous people from the past. Would you like to have a conversation with Beethoven, Teddy Roosevelt, or Marilyn Monroe? There seems to be a lot of potential here and we are only beginning to realize a small part of it.  


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