The Distressing Rise of the Virtual Girlfriend

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
July 9 2012 5:08 PM

The Distressing Rise of the Virtual Girlfriend

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The era of shimmery, for-your-eyes-only virtual girlfriends has arrived.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Technophile shut-ins, rejoice. The era of shimmery, for-your-eyes-only virtual girlfriends has arrived, says this video, uploaded to You Tube by user Alsionesvx. The film showcases an augmented reality system that allows users to project the pixilated Japanese pop star Hatsune Miku into their day-to-day lives. Using video goggles and an Xtion Pro motion sensor, Alsionesvx can take Hatsune, a wide-eyed, pigtail-wearing wraith who, significantly, has no mouth (and somewhat less significantly, has no nose), to the park. It’s sort of romantic. Then he, um, plunks her in his kitchen and paws at her tie: less romantic.

The worst part, though, is when the filmmaker demonstrates Hatsune’s ability to respond to touch. Almost two minutes into the video, we’re treated to the sight of a man’s disembodied arm patting the aqua-haired apparition on the head. She closes her eyes and raises her palms in what’s supposed to be either pleasure or a cute “I surrender” gesture. But then the guy lifts his hand and whales on her. She cringes, covers her face, knits her eyebrows together in distress. The screen fades to black. Gee whiz, computers can do amazing things these days!

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Putting aside the video’s oblivious reenactment of domestic violence (a topic for another post), it’s worth noting that the phenomenon of virtual lady-friends is gathering steam in Japan and Korea. To some, few things may seem as sad-sack as opting for a computerized SO. One XX Factor colleague describes it as “social surrender,” technology telegraphing failure in the real world dating scene. And that could be why digital companions like Hatsune—silent, passive creatures that follow you around and make timid fluttery signs when you beat them—play on fantasies of absolute power and control. What else do they have to offer? Not conversation, and not social capital, real or imagined: After all, they’re only visible to the person with the goggles. You can’t feel them, though they respond to your touch. And if there’s a kind of titillation in walking down the street beside a beautiful woman that no one else knows is there, surely it has as much to do with the thrill of possession as it does with pure delight at her presence.

Anyway, I wonder whether a simple semantic adjustment would help dispel the ickiness of this trend. Instead of calling Hatsune Miku an augmented reality “girlfriend,” let’s call her what she is: a toy. Men who download or buy her or whatever are not participating in relationships, which involve two people, but playing with toys, like Legos or Barbies. You can pummel a teddy bear, if you wish; you cannot bop a woman on the head. Unfortunately, I suspect it’s the consumer’s inability to distinguish between love and ownership that makes Hatsune and her ilk so popular. 

(via io9)

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

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