This will not be a sappy post about love. It’s okay to keep reading.
P&G China, according to a report on VR Scout, released trailers for a product where you could buy a virtual reality girlfriend or boyfriend. At one point, actual VR footage was online, but now all we have are the trailers, which … see for yourself:
It’s not exactly pornographic in the sense that nothing overtly sexual happens, but you wake up in bed and a reasonably attractive person proceeds to cheerfully hop around the room. You can do the math. But it’s a fantasy. All relationships, to an extent, are fantasies, and then you see how much of that can become real. In this case, the possibility of those fantasies becoming real seem slim-to-none, but maybe people will get something good out of the exercise. That would be nice. The official Versions stance is that should that happen, we would be happy for those people.
But let’s be real: the whole thing is kind of depressing. Not in the sense that people will do strange things to fill voids in their lives or perceived needs for companionship. VR is not materially different than any other strategy or product used to cope with loneliness. If it seems a little bit weird, that’s more a problem of social norms evolving more slowly than technology than it is a problem with the product itself. (Disclosure: I still find this stuff a bit weird, but not every product needs to be for me. That’s fine.)
it is only capable of being supplicant
What is awkward about P&G China’s virtual reality companion is that it isn’t really a virtual girlfriend or boyfriend; it’s just a 360-degree movie. It appears that you cannot move in this setup. You are trapped in a foreign body as a person moves around you. What separates this from a normal movie about companionship: The ability to look away? The fact that you inhabit the body of one of the actors? Not for the first time, 360-degree video is being conflated with virtual reality in a way that blurs the utility of each medium. The former is indeed a gateway drug to the latter, but when thinking about what it can do it’s worth being honest with the public—especially if your target market is people who are lonely.
The closest parallel for understanding the technology of virtual partners, however, may not be film or VR, but Facebook. At Buzzfeed, Katie Notopoulos makes a series of good points about how the social network fundamentally struggles to grasp the intricacies of friendship:
Human relationships are messy in ways that technology and social platforms can’t really deal with. People get divorced but feel ashamed to announce it, they have weird passive-aggressive fights with their friends, they repeatedly lurk on the page of their partner’s ex. They have preferences that are not stated in their likes, or they outgrow those likes after a few years. If you look in your settings at what Facebook is telling advertisers it knows about you, you will be shocked at both how creepily right it is and how hilariously wrong it is.
Facebook is sometimes like the relative who thinks you still love horses because you were really into horses when you were 14 and keeps sending you birthday cards with horses on them. This uncanny feeling of someone sort of knowing you but not really is echoed all over the web. Like LinkedIn somehow suggesting that you add someone you went on a blind date with years ago to your professional network. Or when you buy that pair of shoes online but the Zappos ads for them follow you around every new site you visit seemingly forever, like a case of dynamic advertising HPV.
It seems eminently plausible that virtual companions might one day run into this problem. P&G China’s offering avoids this problem by simply having no interactivity, but that is clearly not where this story will one day end. A lot of the worry round virtual reality boy and/or girl friends stems from the control over another (virtual) being—like a sex doll but creepier. Yet the problem may not be with controlling another creature so much as with its understanding of you being so limited that it is only capable of being supplicant. Much as Facebook’s newsfeed is increasingly rigged to coddle you and never really challenge your path in life, virtual reality can have the same effects in a relationship. Maybe that satisfies some needs for companionship, but at the end of the day you’re still trapped in a movie.