Trends in Japan 2009: virtual love

December 24th, 2009 by Felicity Hughes

Though we’ve not yet quite seen nanomachines building islands out in Tokyo Bay, William Gibson, author of “Idoru,” must have be feeling pretty smug last month when the news hit the Internet that a young Japanese man had married his virtual girlfriend.

But the prophecy of “Idoru,” which envisions a love affair between a rock star and a virtual celebrity, has not yet quite been fulfilled. The important difference being that the virtual character of Nene, created for the dating game Love Plus, is circumscribed by the bounds of her programming while the Idoru of Gibson’s novel enjoys free will.

That being said, Konami’s DS dating game Love Plus contained characters that were so life-like  some women complained their husband’s were neglecting them in favor of spending time with their virtual partners. Indeed, Sal 9000, the groom in the recent cyber wedding, felt compelled to broadcast his relationship to the Web. Though many have suggested that the marriage was simply a playful form of theatre rather than a serious gesture, it seemed that Western media were more tempted to ascribe deeper meaning to the event.

Regardless of where you stand on the matter, fear of socially disconnected otaku is clearly a topic that won’t go away. A story that appeared in the New York Times earlier in the year about 2-D love, and more specifically men who are in love with body pillows depicting their favorite anime characters, sparked a storm of criticism by many who felt the author had exaggerated the extent of the trend by focusing only on a little-known otaku subset.

Will the 2-D love trend eventually move above ground? We’re not going to there, but one thing is certain: Mobile phone companies are keen to get their customers hooked on machi-chara: digital characters that appear on cell-phone screens to help users organize their appointments, remind them of upcoming tasks, and so on. At CEATEC this year DoCoMo unveiled a new set of machi-chara. While these endearing avatars were obviously targeted at the otaku demographic, it’s not hard to imagine more users warming up to machi-chara and relying on them for support, guidance and maybe, just maybe, companionship. It’ll come down to not only how convincing the AI is but also on how comfortable we are with interacting with human surrogates.

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