What’s it Like, Attending a Memorial in Virtual Reality?

12 May

My good friend Christian Long passed away a week ago. I had sent Chris a message a few days before, because I realise that I haven’t been able to say goodbye to him. I wanted to send a personal thank you, and goodbye. I knew nobody would read it, and he was long gone. It seemed like saying goodbye digitally seemed fitting in our tech-heavy digital world. However what better way to say goodbye to somebody who was dedicated to virtual reality (VR) than holding a memorial in VR?

I’d like to add some personal experience to this story for context first. I used to be a pretty hardcore PC gamer. I would game long into the night, and would be part of clans and chat groups. It’s led me to attend ‘virtual’ Christmas parties on chat groups organised by members of the group. It was a strange opportunity to chat, play games, win prizes and get to know one another without playing videogames. You could recognise voices, and gamertags in the chat group. However once we started to add photos to the group chat, suddenly here were faces behind the voices rather than just digital avatars. It felt like you were part of a strange online family, that you’d never met before but had spent hours together with on adventures. I could argue that I knew some of these people more than my real friends, because I’d seem them tested under difficult situations and saw how they reacted and behaved in those situations. Virtual reality (VR) offers something similar, but different to these online digital parties.

Steve Bambury, Chris Madsen and Mike Armstrong managed to organise a beautiful memorial inside Engage. In fact, it was the same environment I mentioned previously –  the circular stone burials. However instead of a giant dinosaur floating in the sky, there were red arrows guiding attendees to the memorial space. An ethereal shining light lit the space where we would have the ceremony. I was the first attendee to come in, and it felt strange being physically back to where it all started. Bagpipes were playing in the background, and as I went to the space created for the event I started hearing other attendees come in. I could hear how moved they were, crying and sniffling. “Oh god. This is amazing.” With some technical guidance we all realised that we were on open mics, and everybody could hear us. We swiftly and promptly muted ourselves to cry into our VR headsets in our separate houses/office spaces. Yes we still all had digital avatars. Some of us had our faces scanned and put onto the digital avatars in Engage. However we hadn’t met before, we don’t regularly game together and we were essentially a group of strangers who had all come together for our love and appreciation of Chris.

As people started streaming in, a video slideshow of photos of Chris started playing with the background song of “City of Stars” from the La La Land soundtrack and the speeches started to take place. I realised this was a very special experience. I don’t know if there’s every been a VR memorial before. This might have been the first ever one to take place. As I looked around me, I saw avatars all dressed respectfully in black with the word ‘muted’ under their name. I heard the sound of birds, wind in trees, and tearful goodbyes. In a strange way it all felt real.

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Autumn leaves fall from the sky during the singing of Hallelujah.

As with all things related to VR, a surreal and beautiful moment took place. A young girl in Spain with her father started singing Hallelujah, and as she sang autumn leaves slowly started to drift down from the sky. It was so beautiful and moving. I had never heard somebody sing in a virtual world, let alone a dedicated song at a memorial. It was extremely moving. This suddenly felt more real than any of my Christmas parties I attended on Teamspeak. When I came to give my speech, I physically stood up in real life and in Engage. As I walked towards the podium and looked at all the avatars around me, it suddenly felt even more real. After giving the most tearful speech I’ve ever given,  I sat back down in my chair. Both in VR and in real life. I was shaking and the spongy protection eye cover on the HMD was wet.

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A RAF officer stands tall and salutes as the planes flew over us.

A RAF officer who served with Chris then spoke some beautiful poetry dedicated to Chris through a robotic voice (the bandwidth must have been suffering with the amount of people all in one space). Somebody then put a video of air planes doing a special tribute in the sky for fallen soldiers. They put the video up in the sky which was blue, and tilted it down towards us. It was like the planes were really doing these manoeuvres, and this RAF officer stood up in front of me and saluted. It was so moving to see this tribute.

His wife and children were all on one headset, guided by the help of Chris’s friend Jay. His wife had never been in VR before, and she said she’d been extremely moved by all the tributes and people Chris had managed to touch. Her avatar dropped to the ground and rose up again as Chris’s children giggled and said their thank yous and goodbyes (his children are extremely young). They were extremely joyful and playful, and I hope that the space/experience is recorded to return back to as an option when they’re older and more mature (yes it’s possible to do this in VR). Hearing his family, children and Jay was enough for me to break down in tears if the singing and planes weren’t already enough.

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We were then given the opportunity to put his favourite plane, the Lancaster, into the environment around us till the digital space would crash. What ensued were planes taking up all the space around us. Luckily my graphics card was pretty high spec and I managed to stay in long enough to see hundreds of Lancasters take to the sky. I could hear Chris’s children giggling and laughing as they were slowly surrounded by Lancasters.

I know it’s possible to have planes fly over a memorial and have somebody sing a beautiful song whilst autumn leaves slowly float down from the sky. However it requires a lot of money, influence and organisational skills to pull of something that spectacular.  It’s definitely impossible to have hundreds of Lancasters take over the sky, as well as for all these people from around the world to be at a memorial in VR. There were people in Scotland, America, Dubai, Spain and other various places attending this VR memorial. What I was missing was reading the body language, and facial expressions – but I could hear it when the microphones were un-muted. I could see people taking their headsets on and off during the memorial (presumably to cry), and it was such a moving, surreal and incredibly beautiful tribute to Chris. For me it was incredibly real, and I don’t think it could have been done any better.

If you’d like to help Chris and his family please help support their gofund me page.

One Response to “What’s it Like, Attending a Memorial in Virtual Reality?”

  1. danzig360 at 7:03 pm #

    Hi Nina,
    You’ve captured many of my experiences in your article as well. So moved and honoured to have been part of it.
    I can’t believe how fitting and right it all felt. I cried most of the way through. It’s exhilarating to know that VR can do deep spiritual, and emotional social experiences.
    Chris would have been so proud.
    Going to keep missing him. I have an urge to call him and tell him about it and so many other things…
    Be well, my friend.
    Daniel

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