Saturday, January 30, 2021

Revisiting the departed

If you had the opportunity to use a virtual recreation of a loved one who’s died to “visit” them, would you? As “artificial intelligence”, 3-D visual rendering, and fully-immersive virtual reality continues to improve, there will come a time when it will be possible to “visit” a very convincing and realistic imitation of a loved one we’ve lost. We’re not there yet, though, which may or may not be a good thing. In the meantime, we still need to rely on “old fashioned” things like photographs, videos, and audio recordings.

I became aware of this recently when I saw a post on one of the gay widower Facebook groups I’m part of. A member shared an article about a documentary series from South Korean broadcaster MBC, which “shows reunions between South Koreans and their deceased loved ones through VR technology.” Not surprisingly, there were varied reactions to the idea from the folks who, like me, have lost their partners. Some would take advantage of it, some wouldn’t, and I said I probably would just because I’d be fascinated by the technology and would want to see what it was like. At the same time, I’d know it wasn’t real, so I’d probably mainly keep noticing what they got right and wrong.

That’s a decision I may never need to make, or, at least, not for a long time. In the meantime, I have things like photographs and audio recordings (as I was talking about earlier today) that I can turn to “visit” Nigel—those are the real thing, not an artificial creation.

Because of that Facebook Group post, and other comments I’ve seen there and elsewhere, I came to realise how lucky I am: Not everyone has so many riches.

Photos are one of those things we probably think we have enough of, or, maybe we just don’t think about it at all. I think that’s a mistake. As I said last year:
Take photos of your loved ones—lots and lots of photos. Take too many photos, way too many, because when your loved one is gone, you won’t say, “I wish hadn’t taken so many photos of them.” What you’ll actually think, no matter HOW many photos you took, will be, “Why didn’t I take more?” Trust me on this: I know.
I was lucky in that I had a lot of photos of Nigel—helped by the fact I always had my phone, and so, a camera, wherever I went (sometimes modern technology is better than awesome). Even so, I said in that post that I’d like “a breadth of photos showing the Nigel I knew and loved”, and the only way to have those is if we’d taken more.

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about losing all their photos, like through some disaster, and that’s always sad. Nowadays, digital photos can be stored “in the cloud” so they don’t have to be lost in the same way printed photos can be (there are other issues with digital photos, but the point is merely that it’s easier to keep them even in the event of a household disaster).

I’ve also heard people talking about how they wished they had audio of dead loved ones speaking, because they were beginning to forget what their loved one sounded like. This was a problem particularly for older people who maybe never had a video camera nor any reason to make an audio-only recording. In the future that’ll probably be less common, again because of the ready availability of smartphones.

All of that means that in the future we won’t need to do without audio and video reminders of the loved ones we’ve lost, and, as a widower, I think that’s a really good thing. But to realise that opportunity, there’s more that we all need to do.

As I said last year, we all need to take a lot of photos. We also need to shoot at least the occasional video, which would give us audio and video of our loved ones. This means we also need to allow ourselves to be photographed and videoed, at least sometimes. Whoever survives whom will be glad we all did that.

We’re nowhere near having a convincing way to artificially “visit” with dead loved ones yet, which means regardless of whether or not that’s a good thing, we’ll need to continue to rely on “old fashioned” things like photographs, videos, and audio recordings for quite some time to come. I think we all need to play our part in preserving what we can of our loved ones—and ourselves. That way, those left behind can “visit” the real thing, and not an artificial imitation.

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