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Love, Virtually
Mike Treder   Dec 11, 2009   Ethical Technology  

As opposed to love, actually…

A man marries his virtual girlfriend. A woman dines in public with a cardboard cutout character.

Are these one-time flukes or are they signs of a trend?

Here is a story, a true story:

A woman walks into a restaurant. She’s alone, but she requests a table for two. She sits down, pulls a giant piece of cardboard out of her oversized bag, and unrolls a three-foot cutout of a human being. It has what looks like a computer-generated cartoon man etched on one side. She places the cardboard man gently on the seat across from her, making sure his body folds neatly at the hip crease and that his legs dangle comfortably below him. Then she opens up her menu.

Joel Massey happened to be her waiter that night. “She was just a real normal-looking woman in her mid-40s,” he says. Everything else was normal, too — it was just a typical Tuesday night at the popular San Francisco restaurant.

The woman called her companion Peter or Stan. She ordered an appetizer for herself and a halibut dish for Peter/Stan. She was probably a tourist; she wanted to take pictures with Peter/Stan as the sun was setting, and while she was waiting for her food, she asked Joel if he could recommend any memorabilia from the gift shop so she could buy him a little something. When Joel was away, he could see her at her table talking to Peter/Stan as if he was a real person. Once or twice, she reached over to adjust him in his seat, or maybe to hold his hand.

“When I walked up to the table, I felt like I was interrupting a date,” Joel said. After about 45 minutes, the woman got up, walked to the kitchen, and told Joel that she would have to take her and Peter/Stan’s dinners to go — they had a trolley car ride to catch, and she didn’t want to be late.

It turns out that woman is not alone in finding comfort from a virtual companion. Here’s another:

Staff Sgt. Patrick Thomas’ girlfriend is cheating on him. Well, with him.

A cardboard version of the war vet stationed in Iraq, that is.

Anne Schollard, who lives in Jacksonville, carries her new cardboard man everywhere she goes—the beach, movies or on a plane. As you can expect, she gets all kinds of crazy looks from people who think she has truly lost it.

Thomas has been stationed in Iraq with the U.S. Air Force for two months and sometimes goes days without talking to a familiar voice.

But while he has been slumming it in the desert, Thomas’ cardboard double has been living it up in vacation spots around Florida and California.

Schollard doesn’t think she has gone loco, but jokingly sees the cardboard beau as an upgrade. “He doesn’t talk back, he doesn’t argue,” she said.

The perfect boyfriend!

And if that’s not enough, check out this one:

She wanted to give him a glimpse of home.

Lesan Gouge’s plan was to snap pictures of herself at various locations in Destin, and send them to her boyfriend Jeff who is deployed.

Then, her innate sense of humor took hold and “Replacement Jeff” joined her in the photographs.


Replacement Jeff is a “high class” blowup doll, dressed in shorts, a striped shirt and a baseball cap. At about five-feet-tall with a painted on mustache, Replacement Jeff doesn’t resemble the real Jeff, but he’s great for the photographs.

“This one is so quiet,” Gouge said of the doll with a laugh. “He’s a good listener, and he doesn’t say anything back… he’s awesome—he’ll go anywhere you want him to go.”

It sounds like these women might prefer their imitation guys over the real ones.

Which is sort of what happened to a young man in Japan, who fell in love with a pillow doll:

Nisan didn’t mean to fall in love with Nemutan. Their first encounter — at a comic-book convention that Nisan’s gaming friends dragged him to in Tokyo — was serendipitous. Nisan was wandering aimlessly around the crowded exhibition hall when he suddenly found himself staring into Nemutan’s bright blue eyes.

In the beginning, they were just friends. Then, when Nisan got his driver’s license a few months later, he invited Nemutan for a ride around town in his beat-up Toyota. They went to a beach, not far from the home he shares with his parents in a suburb of Tokyo. It was the first of many road trips they would take together.

As they got to know each other, they traveled hundreds of miles west — to Kyoto, Osaka and Nara, sleeping in his car or crashing on friends’ couches to save money. They took touristy pictures under cherry trees, frolicked like children on merry-go-rounds and slurped noodles on street corners.

Now, after three years together, they are virtually inseparable. “I’ve experienced so many amazing things because of her,” Nisan told me, rubbing Nemutan’s leg warmly. “She has really changed my life.”

Nemutan doesn’t really have a leg. She’s a stuffed pillowcase — a 2-D depiction of a character, Nemu, from an X-rated version of a PC video game called Da Capo, printed on synthetic fabric.

So, should we laugh at these people? Feel sorry for them? Empathize?

Here is a commentary about a man in Vancouver, Canada, who laments that no woman he’s met has ever been “perfect” enough for him:

As such he decided the best compromise was to buy a perfectly proportioned blow up doll. Problem was it was going to cost him $10,000. He had been saving from his two waitering jobs and had almost come up with the entire amount. He was eagerly anticipating when he would finally be able to have his perfect woman.

What I found interesting was my colleague’s reaction. She is in the business of selling sex paraphernalia and yet she was mildly disgusted with this man’s intentions.

Fetishes are definitely something people don’t understand and therefore label as deviant. It is because these people don’t tow the what-is-socially-acceptable-for-sexual-behavior-line (i.e. heterosexual monogamous sex) they are automatically labeled as freaks. It is my experience that, generally, it’s just the opposite.

Some people have certain proclivities that make them sexually aroused—like feet, or latex, or blow up dolls. So what? As long as they are safe, sane and consensual with what they are doing, then there should be no reason to judge that person. But yet we still do—even people in the sex industry who deal with this all the time are judging.

You mingle with fetish people on a daily basis. It’s only when you find out what they are up to behind closed doors that things get weird for you.

The Perfect Woman? Sounds familiar.

Maybe we should just accept that love comes in many forms these days. And who knows, someday you might even find yourself falling in love and having a relationship with a virtual partner.

That’s what happened to another fellow in Japan. In fact, he took it so far that he married the girl!

We may occasionally wish our spouses had an “off” switch but a Japanese man will have that luxury full-time after he married his virtual girlfriend in an official-looking ceremony.

In a bizarre story reminiscent of the film Lars and the Real Girl, the man, known by his nickname SAL9000, fell in love with a fictional character from the Nintendo DS “love simulator” Love Plus.

Popular in Japan’s geek subculture, the game invites players to pick a girlfriend and then challenges them to woo her by taking her out on “dates” and perform boyfriend duties such as saying “I love you” 100 times into the hand-held games console.

The most successful lotharios can even give their virtual love interest a kiss by literally kissing the DS’s touch screen.

But that wasn’t enough for SAL9000, who wedded Nene Anegasaki in an official-looking but not legally binding reception in Tokyo.

Although today this may seem like the stuff of jokes and ridicule, it’s actually a subject of serious study. In mature versions of virtual reality, you may be able to assume an avatar identity that makes you into whatever you want: younger, better-looking, even a different sex. And you may yet discover that you prefer the companionship of a virtual character over a flesh and blood mate.

Issues of gender identity, sexual preference, fetishes, and relationship variations are emerging along with the dynamic new technologies that are taking us into an unfamiliar world. Organizations such as ours and others like the Institute for the Future are launching programs to investigate these trends.

Among the many changes coming our way are new opportunities for love, virtually. And maybe even actually.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.


My first assumption was that these people were doing a psychology or social experiment, or trying to prove a point (not sure what), not that they truly sought this fake sort of companionship. Did anyone else think that?

But isn’t the difference between pillow-man & blow-up doll waiter compared to the woman who’s mate is away proving something to us?
Hers is a relationship that has been established and grounded in what
appears to be socially acceptable (normal) face-to-face, adult behavior.

Pillow man may have a fetish, but this sounds more like he carts around a security blanket, for which he now says he feels real emotional attachment.
The waiter is sounding most like a typical young (immature even) man who cannot find a servant of his own!

I think what appears to be a fun and useful, new technological gadget is really
only showing us our poor communication skills and serious issue with human intimacy. These are skills that can be worked on and even improved upon,
(couples or singles psychotherapy counseling).

Might even cost less than $10,000, but then, when one has that kind of cash to spend, I suppose you do what you like. Developing robots and AI is one thing - perpetuating the astounding sexism that runs throughout our society is another.
Again, when you’ve got the bankroll, you call the shots.

very interesting, but slightly sad article.

thanks for reading my post.

I believe there’s a world of difference between hearing “I love you” from someone you believe to have free will and hearing “I love you” from someone you believe not to have free will.

hello again,

I think we also have to look closely at Japanese culture,
specifically their ideas about sex and women. My earlier
post might have sounded like a judgment and less of an observation.

Are Japanese robot-women developers more enlightened about sex?
or are they in the dark ages in their attitudes towards women?

Is having a robot-woman safer than say, catching a disease?
or a frying pan?

so many questions…
so many ways to get off.

Thanks for reading.

Whilst these types of stories can be mostly amusing, they often show that folks will do just about anything for media attention, or any attention for that matter. However, they do highlight a need to understand what the real motives for these kinds of attachments are?

Wife missing hubbie overseas? ..yeah.. this makes some sense. Cardboard cut-out as a life-long partner? Hmm. Beats me! Yet there are many kinds of “love” that are not sexual at all, love for a child or a pet or other animals, or moreover all animals. In fact, you may even be inclined to deduce that “love”, (whatever this need really is), has no connection to sex at all, and is but a singular phenomenon or need that is projected by us in various ways and by various means : is that radical thinking?

The virtual world of gaming and escapism is looking at heading, and maybe even yet promoted as leading the way to a more respectable way to vent one’s so called wants and needs. Yet should we take some care here? There are many termed deviant who vent their sexual wants and needs as violence and even killing. Are we to permit this kind of virtual practice if it does not stray into reality?

Or should we seek to find out what “love” and attachment and connectedness really is? There is a real opportunity for spiritual evolution to take the lead here, not merely another extension and way to promote independence and selfishness. The virtual world may lead us to understand “love” in a form of complete connectedness that our consciousness may be unable to establish as individuals in bodies.

In “Avatar”, James Cameron has gone to great lengths and time to envisage and create a virtual and diverse world of jungles, plants, animals, birds and humanoids, (and warfare) : wow! Are we really that bored with planet Earth? Is this planet not diverse enough with life and animals, and plants? Should we get our priorities into perspective and conserve planet Earth first?

I have a lot of thoughts on this subject. I am not sure where to start. I have read the preceding comments and contemplated them a while. I am male and I wonder what I might feel if my supposed wife found complete sexual release in a terrific male robot who could just do it like a porn star? Or vice verse what might she think of my fun toys? I think that deep ‘spiritual’ love does exist outside of sex. But at the same time sex and love seem to go hand in hand. This must be very subjective to different people and situations.
I am not so sure if literally marrying an object like a sex toy or an effigy of a forlorn lover is healthy unless the marriage is itself admittedly a fantasy like some sort of cathartic wish or voodoo ritual in the hope of some gratifying future. Although if it makes one happy why re-invent the wheel? It is no more or less harmful than masturbation when all of the ‘chips are down’ and we all know what a big industry that is.
Over all it seems to me to be rather constructive to realize and accept the use of robotic devices as a means of personal and sexual fulfillment. The insecurity and shame of constant competition for fulfilling sexual and spiritual mates, in our increasingly crowded world, seems to interrupt cooperation far more than the regular acceptance of personal fulfillment through fantastic means may do. Competition in the sex arena sure does seem to sell a lot of cars, makeup, clothes, drugs and alchohol, heck just about everything. (Chalk one up for big business folks. Who else could possibly keep us so busy being a big shot?)
May-hap that the final end of our spiritual and intellectual realizations could be some ‘perfect’ effigy (like barbie?) of an ideal human being that is created by some bio mechanical means? Would that not be the ‘fleshed’ out manifestation of some divine savior? Of course created according to the individual consumer’s own whim. A sort of re-invention of the ‘personal jesus’.

May-hap that the final end of our spiritual and intellectual realizations could be some ‘perfect’ effigy (like barbie?) of an ideal human being that is created by some bio mechanical means? Would that not be the ‘fleshed’ out manifestation of some divine savior? Of course created according to the individual consumer’s own whim. A sort of re-invention of the ‘personal jesus’.

I think that deep ‘spiritual’ love does exist outside of sex. But at the same time sex and love seem to go hand in hand. This must be very subjective to different people and situations.

It is no more or less harmful than masturbation when all of the ‘chips are down’ and we all know what a big industry that is.

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