Printed: 2020-07-14

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Love, Virtually

Mike Treder

Ethical Technology

December 11, 2009

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.


Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
phone: 860-428-1837