Virtual reality could be used to help people grieve the death of a loved one, a leading clinical psychologist believes.
But Operation Transformation psychologist, Dr Eddie Murphy, an adjunct associate professor at the UCD School of Psychology, said it must be done with the right supports.
He was reacting to reports of how a grieving mother has been reunited with her dead daughter in virtual reality.
The heart-wrenching digital reunion features in a South Korean documentary which has been watched by millions since its screening last week, promoting a debate on grief, loss and the role of technology in that process.
Dr Murphy said it can help the bereaved but must be embedded as part of a therapeutic approach and combined with the right support mechanisms.
“The use of virtual reality is an emerging field in psychology. It is being used to help war veterans in the US in the whole area of exposure therapy,” Dr Murphy said.
“In some therapy around grief and loss, we approach it by getting the bereaved individual to talk to an empty chair as if their loved one was there.
“But that’s a facilitated and guided approach in the therapy room. I’m not sure how many therapeutic components were embedded in this approach in South Korea.
“This digital approach should be embedded as part of a therapeutic approach, with psychologists involved rather than programmers and videographers.”
The so-called resurrection technology featured in the documentary, Meeting You, shows bereaved mother Jang Ji-sung wearing a headset and “meeting” her daughter, Na-yeon, in a virtual park four years after her death.
Na-yeon died in 2016, aged seven, of the rare blood disorder, hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, on her first day of chemotherapy just a month after her diagnosis.
A production team spent eight months processing photographs and videos of the child to recreate her 3D digital avatar.
They used a movie technique called motion capture to film the movements of a child actor before digitally imposing Na-yeon’s face over the actor’s face.
The virtual-reality Na-yeon spoke and moved but could not respond to her mother’s words.
Her mother, who wore special gloves to give her the sensation of touching her child, can be heard sobbing as the two meet and interact.
The documentary opens with a white butterfly settling in front of Ms Jang and the sound of Na-yeon running towards her and calling out: “Mum! Where have you been, mum? Did you think about me?” Ms Jang replies: “I do all the time.”
The virtual Na-yeon says: “I missed you a lot, mum.”
They reach out their hands to touch palm-to-palm and begin floating skywards before sitting at a table where Na-yeon eats seaweed soup, one of the little girl’s favourite foods.
They blow out digital candles on a digital birthday cake and Na-yeon makes a wish, saying: “Please don’t let my dad smoke...please don’t let my mum cry.” Later, Na-yeon lies down on a bed to sleep, telling her mother that it’s not “hurting any more” and saying: “Goodbye, mum, I love you.”
Her mother replies “me too” and reaches out again to stroke her daughter as she falls asleep. Na-yeon is then transformed into a white butterfly, which flies away.
The emotional encounter was filmed against a greenscreen as Ms Jang’s husband and their three children watched - all visibly upset.
Ms Jang, who has a tattoo of her daughter’s name and birthday, described the short encounter as like “a real paradise” and said she hopes many people will remember Na-yeon after watching the documentary.
She also wrote on her blog: “In my dreams, Na-yeon did not smile. In my dreams, she always looked resentful, perhaps because of my guilt. It was such a great happiness to see Na-yeon calling out to me with a smile.
“This was a dream that I always wanted to dream. The laughter of my other three lovely children goes a long way to filling the gap left by Na-yeon. I want to live happily with my three children, with more love, rather than just pain and grief. That’s why I don’t need to feel ashamed when I see Na-yeon again.”
Dr Murphy said while some people might have an adverse initial reaction to the technology’s use around dealing with or coping with loss and grief, it is an extension of work already being done in this area.
The movie industry has been pushing virtual reality boundaries since the early '90s to ‘resurrect’ stars from beyond the grave.
Brandon Lee, a son of martial arts star, Bruce Lee, was accidentally killed on the set of The Crow in 1993, very close to the end of filming.
Following a rewrite, the film was completed using early CGI technology to superimpose Lee’s face onto a stuntman.
That set a precedent which led to Oliver Reed, who died in 1999 while filming Gladiator, featuring in scenes filmed after his death.
Celine Dion performed with a holographic Elvis Presley in 2009.
Alicia Keys sang with a hologram of Frank Sinatra a year earlier, but it was Tupac Shakur’s appearance at the 2012 Coachella festival, almost two decades after his death, that led to a new pop industry which has seen Abba, the late Roy Orbison, Whitney Houston, Billie Holiday and Frank Zappa tour again thanks to hologram technology.
James Dean, who died in a 1955 car crash at the age of 24, is making an unexpected return to the big screen.
The cultural icon, known for Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden, has been posthumously cast in the Vietnam era action-drama Finding Jack. Production house Magic City Films obtained the rights to use Dean’s image from his family.
In the most recent Star Wars film, Rise of Skywalker, there were a few scenes with General Leia following the death of actor Carrie Fisher in 2016.
The film makers were quick to point out that however that Ms Fisher has not been recreated with CG digital effects.
Instead, Leia's part in the film was crafted by JJ Abrams and writer Chris Terrio based around unused footage the editors pulled together from the filming of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.