Hugh and Monika Jo after their wedding. Photo courtesy of Monika Jo
In 1994, the news heralded the world's first "wedding in cyberspace," and my prepubescent imagination really went crazy. The future is now, and it's amazing, I thought, I never have to worry about touching a girl in real life. Never mind that the virtual reality of the time was nothing more than an exciting trip into a world of colored geometric shapes.
The so-called "Information Age" really was about to change our everyday lives in countless ways, but headset-based VR went into the trashcan in short order, and "cyberspace" came to mean "the place you go to via a modem so you can find porn." Then cyberspace became a dated cliché, and the internet became a utility and a basic human right. The thought of a wedding in virtual reality became, in retrospect, a dorky detour along the highway of progress.
In case you haven't heard, VR is back. The consumer version of the Oculus Rift headset is due out next month, VR content is starting to proliferate, and the whole thing has suddenly become worth taking seriously again. It made me wonder if those people who got married in virtual reality were some kind of pioneers, or prophets.
So I tracked them down. Monika Jo is still married to her husband Hugh, and she is still an evangelist for VR. I asked her for her story, and she happily obliged. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Hi Monika! How'd you get into the world of VR in the first place?
The company [I worked for] was called CyberMind, and it exclusively featured VR machines by a British company called Virtuality. They were the standard back then. I just wanted to be as close to VR as possible, and not being an engineer back then, I kind of gravitated toward a retail location.
VICE: What were those machines like?
You stepped up to the platform, and the attendant would lower the ring over your head and that was kind of how you were protected, so you don't wander off and hurt yourself.
The games back then weren't like the VR experiences we're seeing today. Was it hard to sell people on VR?
I think that posed a lot of challenges. In the popular media—TV and movies— VR was portrayed as something much more advanced. So we were sort of on the front line of fielding the public's questions about VR back then. People would say, "What am I going to see? Is it going to be like the holodeck?" They had imaginations that ran wild, but then they were immersed in this mostly primitive shape kind of world. It was a novelty, but there was such a big gap between what they were seeing on TV and in the movies. It's escaping me what the sitcom is called with Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt...
Mad About You!
Yeah Mad About You!
Yeah, if people thought you could really do the stuff they did on that show—fondle Christie Brinkley or Andre Agassi—they were definitely going to be disappointed. So from there, how'd you end up getting married in virtual reality?
My fiancé and I were young and broke back then. We had told some of our friends that we were getting married, but we had decided to elope. One of my friends very casually said, "So why not have your wedding at the theme arcade?" It kind of made me pause. I started to think, What if we could create a VR experience to get married in as a demonstration of how you could use the technology? [My CEO] helped us find the right people, engineers and VR modelers, and we found some musicians to help us with scoring the VR experience.
And I heard that the software part of the experience cost $1 million. Is that right?
That's what they told us at the time. The amount of time invested into coding it from scratch, and all of the equipment that was involved to help power the whole thing [would have had] a price tag of a million dollars. It was kind of my dad's favorite joke—that he was only virtually broke.
An early design sketch of Monika and Hugh's VR wedding platforms
What kind of headset did you have to wear?
It was lighter than the gaming one from Virtuality. But it got hot really fast. That was one of its limitations: You couldn't be in there for an hour or even a half an hour, because it would just start feeling like it's frying right in front of your face.
Yikes! So that headset took you on an undersea journey to the Lost City of Atlantis?
This was pre-cataclysmic Atlantis, so we were above the water.
Excuse me. So what was it like in there, and how did the carousel horses fit in?
It was based on Plato's description of Atlantis but with some artistic license. We decided on a chariot instead of horses that would need to move, and that was too complicated. We needed something more whimsical, so they were actually like carousel horses.
Right. Carousel horses don't have to move their legs. So then what happened?
We started on a carousel ride. It was me by myself on the carousel—my virtual bride avatar—and then it took me toward a bridge where I met my husband's avatar. We move toward the palace on top of a hill. Jesus, this is really taking me back, talking about it in detail!
So at that point you were only side-by-side with the groom in virtual space, right?
Technically we were about 12 feet apart, but in the virtual space, we were right next to each other for the chariot ride and then when we moved toward the palace, the virtual palace in Atlantis. Then we kind of moved and walked together toward the minister.
How much detail was there?
The modelers and the engineers asked us questions like, "We're going to assume that palace has marble floors. What kind of shoes are you wearing? What kind of sound effects should we have?" It takes a lot of everything to replicate the real world, and an imagined world is even more challenging. Then we did the standard Christian ceremony with the minister.
With a Christian minister wearing a VR headset?
Yes, we were definitely rejected a couple of times before we found someone who didn't have any kind of problem with it.
We did an interview with BBC radio—it was a live radio interview—and the reporter said, "Don't you think this is immoral?" It really caught me off-guard on live radio, because it didn't even cross our minds really. It was one thing to sort of find someone who was willing to take on a short ceremony that was so different—someone just open to it. But there was nothing that I thought about performing the ceremony itself in cyberspace to be immoral.
Weddings are supposed to be this symbolic coming-together, and you're across a room from each other. I'm sure you got questions like that, right?
I don't think he went into this type of specificity, but if two people may be far away from each other, but maybe wanted to get married in cyberspace, could that be considered legally binding? Like, have you been entered in a marriage contract by putting on virtual rings?
How'd you get around those kinds of concerns?
We did re-create the exchanging of the rings and the kiss afterward. My mom wanted an entirely other separate, non-circus kind of wedding. I said, "I'm actually only getting married once because once is already chaotic and hard enough."
In that case, when you think back on your wedding, which kiss feels like your wedding kiss? The virtual one, or the real-life one?
I think equally both. In the virtual space when we kissed, the engineers coded—without telling us—a big fireworks display, which we couldn't have indoors. And because we did the virtual ceremony first that elicited a lot of clapping and cheering. So that felt as real as doing the kiss afterwards.
After the wedding, I know you were all over the media, because that's how I found out about you. But what happened to CyberMind?
It was eventually bought by a German company, which continued longer than the US division did. And then eventually it sold the name, and the assets and logos to another company in Europe. The US company closed down the various locations across the country. I left there before it closed down. I probably left them around '95 or '96.
A couple years later, virtual reality really fell out of favor. What was that like, given that you'd made it so central in your life?
It was tough. It went from being so significant and intriguing, to the punchlines of jokes, and that kind of hurt personally. We had our fifteen minutes of fame, and then it was kind of like, OK I can't talk about VR anymore.
Because there was this thing called the web, and the internet, and that was the shiny object, which of course was very significant also. But it hurt on a personal level because there was this technology that I really loved, which then became kind of the butt of jokes.
How do you feel now that VR is popular again?
Last May, I curated a small pop-up VR museum. I kind of gathered and curated different artifacts from different luminaries in VR. So one of the things that was part of the pop-up museum was our wedding outfits, because our wedding attire in real life matched our avatars. I was proud to display those as a piece of VR history. Being there, and giving that pop-up museum as a gift back to the community, and talking to people during the conference, to me, that's what I would call kind of a personal turning point for me.
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