I’ve been sad a lot lately. Like so many others, I’ve experienced a great deal of loss in a short amount of time. But the designer and maker in me try to find creativity even in the darkest of days.
Recently, a close family friend passed away suddenly — it was jarring and unexpected. As is so common these days, I found out not by a phone call but on social media, where the tributes began flowing in almost immediately. Of course, I was tagged in a number of “memories,” which Facebook none-too-empathetically alerted me about.
Seeing photos and videos of the younger me interacting with my friend was heart-wrenching, even as it reminded me of some of my most precious memories. And it also brought up fear in me, leading me to think about how much time I might have left in this life.
Word to the Meta: there’s got to be a better way to be the bearer of brutal news. (More on that note later in this article.)
Then, just a few days later — the evening of my family friend’s wake — I came home and felt uneasy. I’m a frequent meditator and really big into energy. A strange anxious feeling pulsed throughout my body. I hopped in the shower but couldn’t wash off that disturbing sensation. As I got into bed, I noticed the time: 11:11 pm, which felt both auspicious and unnerving.
The following morning, I got a text from another friend’s wife letting me know that her brother-in-law (my friend’s brother, someone I also consider a dear friend) had passed away the evening before, around 11:00 pm. (More on this later, too.) This loss wasn’t unexpected, but it was equally heartbreaking, as he was a young man, just a few years older than me. He lost his fight to pancreatic cancer, fighting to his last breath — the world will be very different without him here. This, to me, wasn’t fair on so many levels.
My friend’s wife told me one of the hardest things about the dawn of this new day was that my friend had his brother’s phone to which people were texting both everyday conversations (“how are you?”) and condolences. Breaking the news and accepting the reality is a burden my friend now carries, and my heart breaks for him.
Illustrated in my recent experiences is a critical commonality between death and technology: both are inevitable.
So, how can we make the two work together in novel ways that support a healing experience in the wake of loss — and maybe even help people understand that death is a vital part of life?
I’m curious if there is an opportunity to pay tribute in a new way. My friend was Jewish, and I joined the family in sitting shiva, where people come together and tell stories in support — not dissimilar from the wake I’d attended just days earlier.
This got me thinking: what if these stories and memories could be minted on the blockchain? Embedded and accessible for future family members to relive?
After all, we do this for celebrities, like The Beatles, Biggie Smalls, and even Steve Jobs. So why not celebrate our own loved ones, eternally and uniquely preserving remembrances for posterity? Better yet, what if these minted memories could be transferred? This may sound morbid and overly capitalistic, but what if the proceeds could fund cancer research? Or provide financial support for the deceased’s family?
I would love to be able to log into a metaverse where I could revisit my Italian grandmother’s kitchen and hear the sounds of laughter between my parents and their parents — many of whom are no longer here.
2021 marked the year of the JPG, and Crypto art is booming. If we’re now collecting JPGs like we used to collect trading cards, why can’t we collect and share memories of loved ones and some of life’s most precious non-fungible moments?
With the advent of Web 3.0 and big tech going all-in on the metaverse (i.e Facebook’s Meta rebrand and Microsoft’s response), there’s no stopping the opportunities to relive and reconnect with people, places, and things that no longer exist in the “real world.” And although we have plenty of sci-fi versions of how dystopian travel through time and space can get (i.e., Blade Runner, Minority Report, Reminiscence), I have hope that technology can provide people with positive nostalgic experiences.
That is, if companies and brands take the UX of eternity seriously.
I Will Always Love You
Making news this past week was the launch of the Las Vegas show, “An Evening With Whitney,” which features a full-length concert led by a hologram of Whitney Houston. As the Washington Post says:
“Soon enough, we will find out if this is what America wants — whether we crave Houston in colorful regalia on a buzzing stage, delighting audiences as she did so often when she was alive, ascending us to new heights of afterlife performance, or, maybe, just plummeting us straight into the uncanny valley.”
What’s interesting to me is that her mother, Pat Houston, sees this as a chance for her daughter to do in the afterlife what she was never able to do when she was alive: perform in small venues and provide an “intimate” experience for the audience. (Pat also stands to earn a fortune on her daughter being eternally on tour, so there’s that, too.)
The moral and ethical debate rages over hologram performances by deceased artists. Meanwhile, concerts by live performers like Twenty One Pilots, Travis Scott, and Lil Nas X are massive hits on virtual world platforms like Roblox and Fortnite. Conversely, shows like Alter Ego, an avatar version of The Voice, have human fans and judges (Nick Lachey, Alanis Morissette, will.i.am, Grimes, and Elon Musk — okay, maybe arguably human judges).
It might seem a bit creepy now, but there is all sorts of evidence that it will be not only common but popular for avatars to engage and entertain humans. For example, “meta-human” virtual influencers and brand ambassadors already are all the rage in Asia — China’s virtual “KOL” (Key Opinion Leaders) industry is projected to grow to 1.5 billion RMB ($232 million) by 2023.
So, while adverse reactions to human-like beings are at the core of the uncanny valley hypothesis, this might be a fleeting thing as the metaverse proliferates. It all depends on how the user experience unfolds, particularly for older people who are plain old digital natives. After all, young Gen Z’s and “Generation Alpha” (kids born in 2012 to present, which includes my infant son) will all be metaverse natives. Today’s weirdness will be tomorrow’s normal.
The trick will be to make the experience of interacting with virtual beings comfortable and familiar. For example, using authentic human voices, not synthesized, can help. This worked for artist Laurie Anderson, who collaborated with an Australian university to create a text engine that writes in her deceased husband Lou Reed’s style — and reads the new work in his actual voice. Rather than freaky, she finds the result comforting and positive, like he’s talking to her from “somewhere else.”
As the veil between real and unreal, past and present, tangible and digital, gets thinner, all of this points to more opportunities to use the power of Web 3.0’s ageless and timeless connection for good.
Sensitivity for Sentient Beings
In recent years, brands and businesses have recognized the power of personalized nostalgia. For example, I’m a long-time fan of the Timehop app, which helps people connect over memories — “celebrate your best moments every day.” Facebook and Apple’s Photos app all do something similar.
Now, this can be a double-edged sword. My friend who recently lost her beloved family dog told me that those randomly served-up memories can be painful, and she’d prefer not to get them spontaneously, say, just before she has to meet with a client and have her game-face on. Similarly, she still gets emails from various pet supply companies and an old vet reminding her to reorder dog food or make appointments for her deceased pet — the opposite of the empathetic business today’s customers desire and deserve.
Time passes, things change, and data survives it all. Just like we have privacy controls, I’d like to imagine a metaverse that has sensitivity built into its digital infrastructure. Some customers may choose to transcend time and space and interact with 3D memories from their past — including deceased loved ones. Others who don’t want the experience of reconnecting with the past should be able to easily opt-out.
Algorithms ultimately are mathematical equations, but an individual’s feelings aren’t a cold calculation. So, ultimately I’d put the onus on the company versus the customer to be thoughtful about the opt-in process. And beyond that — if tomorrow’s world wields visceral memories as a powerful tool of connection and persuasion, how might that look?
Memories Light the Corners of My Mind (and the Metaverse)
As I mentioned, there are a few attributes I think are critical for brands to operate in the Web 3.0 space:
- Permission oriented
- Show up consistently and in a decentralized way
- Make all multisensory interactions and experiences safe
This goes beyond cheesy 3D avatars and kitschy virtual reality concepts. We already have the technology to enliven experiences and memories, like touch-sensitive tech, including haptics and capacitive capabilities, and wearables that gauge biometrics and even performance and mood (i.e., Muse headbands).
Now, recognizing the fact that memories and moments are non-fungible, just like tokens (NFTs), I can imagine a brand like Vans doing a partnership with a festival aimed at helping you track your experience on a super-fun day full of music, entertainment, and art. No need for you to step out of the flow, fumbling for your phone to take pictures and videos and fussing with uploading to social media; the Vans sneakers and clothing you’re wearing has a built-in camera or connected beacon that captures the whole experience in a stateful way. As soon as the show is over, the festival app sends you a series of NFTs that allows you to re-experience your best moments of that awesome day, easily shareable with your friends. Make the festival your avatar, and your best day ever is immortalized. (At least until the next best day ever…) This is what the next evolution of Disney’s MagicBand or Ray-Ban’s smart glasses can aim to become.
While this is a broad-stroke vision, at the core, it’s what we marketers are always looking for: meaningful ways to stay connected with customers by solving their problems and improving their overall lived experiences.
Of course, this imagines that brands will work harder at protecting users, especially younger people. Considering it’s been reported that Facebook knew Instagram was harmful to teens’ self-image, especially girls, but didn’t take action, Meta has to do better. This is a challenge, but one that I think is not insurmountable.
Further, you could argue that as more lines between tangible and digital are blurred, Big Brother will be watching more than ever before — and that’s a bad thing. I would counter that a growing number of people expect and demand a highly personalized experience on every platform they operate on. I’m one of those people, so when brands send offers that are useful to me, I’ll almost always opt–in. (As long as I trust the brand, which has been crucial since the dawn of the modern internet.)
My opt-in enthusiasm includes the opportunity to see my friends who have died unexpectedly one more time. Not just in photos from my wedding on my mantle (which I have), but in a tangible, personal way. We already connect in ways that transcend real-life interactions — just like how I knew my friend’s brother had died in the literal wake of losing my family friend.
The currency of an exchange like that is energetic. And energy, as we know, cannot be created or destroyed. It just morphs into another form. This is the kind of thinking that makes me more intrigued than ever at the idea of interacting with memories in the metaverse. New opportunities, new energy.
Experiences I would love to help businesses /brands redesign:
- The off-boarding of a customer: Why not use this as an opportunity to surprise and support instead of perpetuating sadness with insensitive offers?
- The obituary: What if we could shift from an announcement of death to a celebration of life using Web 3.0 experience design principles?
- Memorial experiences: We can do better than photos at a gravesite… the ideas are endless.
- The after-death experience of our social profiles: What if we could easily transfer our social profiles to our spouse or next-of-kin? And provide them with the power to turn all the photos, videos, and text exchanges into a dynamic place of remembrance and connection?
What are your ideas about designing the UX of eternity now that technology is making life-like reconnection possible? Hit me up in the comments.