The woman kept trying to touch her daughter’s face with the big, clunky haptic gloves on. While sobbing.

Watch a Mother Reunite With Her Deceased Child in VR. (The video isn’t easy to watch, but you can also just read the accompanying article.) The friend who posted this lost her son around the same age. She probably shouldn’t have watched either.

It’s hard to tell from a video of a video how good the technology really is. I’m not a big VR fan. It tends to make me motion sick and I’m picky about renderings of “reality.”

I think, if the avatar of my loved one didn’t move quite right, or the facial expressions were off, it would make me angry. People’s movements are individual enough to use for identification, after all, and in this case the avatar’s movements are from motion-capturing a child actor, a stranger.

While we may have endless photos and videos of ourselves and loved ones these days, that’s a relatively recent phenomenon. Plus, all the photos in the world used to map a face don’t tell you how that face moved or expressed the person’s unique little quirks.

Can the simulated experience of having a loved one “present” again overcome the lizard brain-level repulsion the uncanny valley tends to cause in us? I’m not that qualified to say, but I suspect for those who’ve experienced such loss, the answer to all of these caveats would be that it doesn’t matter.

Several of the people who commented on the video had also lost children, and said that they would try out that VR experience. Even though they knew it wasn’t real, and didn’t know how well it would work, and absolutely knew it would be painful. Their biggest worry was that they wouldn’t want to leave.

Even though the deceased child’s other parent wasn’t experiencing it with them, and neither were any of their still-living kids. 

Keep in mind as well that the child in that video was seven when she died, and had been dead for seven years. Did the VR experience throw her mother back to the rawness of her initial loss, even seven years later? Would rendering the child as a 14-year-old her mother never got to know be a better option? 

Of course, the sights, sounds and feels of the VR experience could be just the tip of the iceberg. You could build accompanying AI so the system didn’t just serve up an avatar of a loved one, but that could also learn about the user to craft their experience.

It could develop an understanding of their grief and the aspects they’re struggling with the most. It could say important things that never got said. Perhaps it could help guide them through their grief. Or it could manipulate them using their greatest weaknesses.

My reaction to this part of the article was derisive:

“...the process might not be simple and the final product might not be perfect, but we now have the technology to recreate the dead in VR – convincingly enough to move their loved ones to tears.

And the implications of that are impossible to predict.

Impossible to predict? Nonsense.

The article also makes these suggestions:

Perhaps regulation is necessary. Rather than letting startups offer the public the chance to interact with virtual versions of their dead loved ones – undoubtedly at a cost – maybe we can make the technology available only to people who’ve submitted to a screening with a psychologist.

It would never be regulated. Not in any way that had teeth. Money can grease those wheels. Screening with a psychologist? Please. Word of mouth would spread about which doctors were free and easy with the VR prescriptions.

Envision another opioid crisis, stemming from technology instead of pills. Sounds like a Black Mirror episode. Oh, right. And if you couldn’t pay, there’d be a reality TV show that would provide it for “free”...

Reactively trying to regulate this tech – or any other we’ve failed to corral – is like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube . . . if the toothpaste was capable of mind control.

It occurred to me that this VR technology was kind of the opposite end of the spectrum from the technology in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. One is trying to preserve the presence and memory of a lost loved down down to lifelike detail, and the other is trying to make it like they never existed.

Except – spoiler alert – that tech doesn’t really work in the movie, either.

Fundamentally, though, perhaps the problem is minimally tech-related. It’s the way we experience and process death. It’s gotten all screwed up, at least in modern Western society. This VR is a very small bandage over a very large wound.

Death used to be close to home, literally and figuratively. People were more likely to be at home through illness and death. Serious injury or illness were more likely to kill you. We didn’t have complex life-saving or life-sustaining machines. Our lives tended to be shorter, and far more people died young. Death wasn’t a stranger to any family. 

Death was also a group experience. Families and communities lived closer. Because death was common, everyone understood both the experience and the work to be done. You weren’t left alone. Not before or after.

These days social isolation has become epidemic, in life, and presumably eventually, in death. If social norms hadn’t changed so much, perhaps many could grieve in healthier ways and technology like that would be less dangerous. 

But VR advances aren’t going to retroactively correct that. 

When my friend posted the video originally, one of her friends commented with this snippet from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, regarding the Mirror of Erised. I think it’s apt, though where our own technological magic mirrors are concerned, can we ever really be prepared?

“It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts… However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.

...I ask you not to go looking for it again. If you ever do run across it, you will now be prepared. It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.”

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached at @melle or