Virtual reality levels up dating apps—and might make finding real intimacy easier.
It was not the first time on a virtual reality (VR) dating app for a girl who goes by the screen name Twitchin and whose name is Naomi in real life (IRL). About five years earlier, she had met and married a Danish man in VR. But because that relationship had a “very, very messy ending,“ three months after its resolution, Twitchin, 34, a kind of influencer in the VR chat ecosystem who hails from Texas, thought she should join a VR-dating app called Nevermet. She wanted both to make friends and to lock down her name before anyone misappropriated it. To hear her tell it, she had no romantic aspirations whatsoever.
One day, Twitchin, who identifies as a pink snow leopard in VR (a snow leopard because this animal speaks to her and pink because her mother died of breast cancer) stumbled upon the profile of a red panda that was kind of “cute and dorky.“
“I took a read at his profile and saw nothing that interested me and was about to hit the skip, but then I remembered that I’m not using the app to find a match but friends I can hang out with, so I liked his profile.” That same day, Twitchin got a notification that Ethereal, the cute red panda, liked her back. Twitchin and Ethereal, a 35-year old man called Erick in real life who lives in northwest Washington, started hanging out in VR. They went to virtual cafe worlds, parties, golfing worlds, cinemas, and many, many more places.
“There are worlds where we can fly planes and there are worlds where you can be Spiderman. Whatever you’re into, there’s probably a world for that,” says Erick who, just like Naomi, previously frequented popular apps like Tinder, OkCupid, and Plenty of Fish. He didn’t have much luck there. “I’d say hi, and then no one would respond,” Erick says.
After a few weeks of dating, Ethereal and Twitchin exchanged headshots, revealing their faces to each other for the first time. Once they felt comfortable enough, they decided to turn on their webcams. It went well. About 5–6 months ago they actually met up IRL at a furry convention in Chicago (furry conventions are large gatherings of the furry fandom tribe, or people who experiment with the concept of fictional, non-human animal characters with human characteristics). They shared the same hotel room. It was a big step.
“Meeting in person is what basically seals the deal,” says Naomi. She knows of people that have amazing relationships in VR but can’t handle each other IRL, people who would prefer to keep their relationship virtual, and people who have what you might call an analog-to-digital split personality. One friend of hers, who is happily married with kids, has multiple romantic affairs ongoing in VR, and his wife is fully aware and OK with it.
Fun with fakes
It was in 1999 when University of Toronto engineer Steve Mann coined the term mediated reality to usher in an umbrella term for any technology seeking to manipulate human perception via computers. “Any kind of mediated presence, whether in VR or augmented reality (AR), which mixes the user’s real world with computer-generated content, or extended reality (XR), a catch-all term for both AR and VR, shows how rich and complicated humans are, and how surprising their behaviors may be,” says Michael Naimark, an OG producer, inventor, and scholar in the fields of VR and new media art.
What works and what doesn’t work in the worlds of mediated reality is a big mystery, and Naimark encourages surprises. “People can fall madly in love in a car accident or on the subway. There will certainly be existence proof that for some people it works fine,” Naimark says. Dating in the metaverse—this much more appealing term that is all the rage today and refers to our collective virtual shared space—is sweet, Naimark says. Assuming that big tech stays humble, that is. If big tech starts screaming, “This piece of hardware is gonna be like having real sex!” because the investor community backing it up smelled the sweet monies, it might self-sabotage, suggests Naimark.
How you represent yourself in VR has been found to affect how you behave toward others IRL.
And there’s always the risk of faking reality. In early 2021, ten videos of Hollywood megastar Tom Cruise took TikTok by storm. In one, he frolicked around in an upscale men’s clothing store; in another, he exhibited a coin trick; in a third, he bit into a lollipop to find gum in the center. In reality, no video had any actual Tomfoolery at all. All were produced with digital clones of Cruise. Deepfakes—synthetic media powered by high-tech machine learning systems to precisely mimic the set of data you feed them, whether the face, voice, or mannerisms of Tom Cruise or anybody else.
This alerted many to the possibility of deepfakes being used for criminal purposes, such as assuming someone else’s identity to gain access to banking data. But deepfakes have the capacity to tarnish the world of online dating too. In the U.K. alone, 8,989 people fell prey to dating scammers who extracted a whopping £97.2 million ($118 million) from them in 2021, according to data from the U.K. National Fraud Intelligence Bureau. Experts say a lot of this romance fraud boils down to scammers and catfishers exploiting technologically sophisticated predatory techniques. Deepfaking a video to persuade their victims that the person they have met online exists IRL is a favored method.
“This is a really super serious thing, and I don’t know where it’s going because over the past year deepfakes have become easily doable,” says Naimark. Then again, it may come with the territory. “People have been lying about their age and height on dating apps from the beginning. It’s probably healthier to think of this as an evolutionary challenge,“ says Naimark. That said, you don’t have to create fake human beings to pose safety concerns.
Be the avatar
The embodiment of yourself in the metaverse, your avatar, can be full-bodied, legless, furry, 2D, 3D, with a tail, with Spock ears, or a more pragmatic photorealistic facsimile of you. The possibilities are endless. Or not? “When you design your avatar, you have four or so different hairstyles to choose from. It’s basically The Man telling you what limits you have to masquerade yourself and that’s very different from having an open palette,” Naimark says.
He uses the word “man“ deliberately. The metaverse is a gamer’s world, and the archetypal gamer is usually a man eating junk food in his room, more interested in escaping planet Earth than embracing it, Naimark says. “Cartoons have a whole bunch of implications, ranging from cultural baggage of what we associate with them to the neurophysiology of what happens when we see a person look like someone from The Simpsons,” says Naimark. How you represent yourself in VR has been found to affect how you behave toward others IRL: Embody the Superman identity and you are inclined to offer strangers chocolate as opposed to the chili sauce you would give them had you veiled yourself in the Voldemort avatar, a 2014 study published in the journal Psychological Science found.
A 2022 Stanford study had 272 students meet in VR for half an hour once a week over two months, either as self-avatars–avatars resembling themselves IRL—or as generic avatars that looked and dressed alike. Those students who inhabited the virtual world as generic avatars reported the experience to be liberating (“stripped of all identity”), while those who stayed near their ego reported feeling “more active and engaged,” leading the researchers to conclude that in professional settings you’d rather go with your self-avatar. Such is the effect of avatars that they can even age your physical body: a study that was published in Media Psychology in 2019 found that participants who had previously taken on older avatars took significantly longer to walk a set distance than either people with young avatars or control group participants.
“Metaverse matchmakers are the antidote to appearance-driven apps like Tinder and OkCupid.”
“I do wonder if more women, people of color, and non-gamers were at the helm, there would be options for avatars that were less appearance-based and more personality-based,” says Elizabeth Glowacki, a health communication researcher and assistant teaching professor at Northeastern University. She recognizes it is incredibly difficult to capture someone’s personality visually, particularly the abstract concepts that are intrinsic to who we are, such as sense of humor and intellect. But for Cam Mullen, CEO and co-founder of the metaverse dating app Nevermet, this is exactly where VR dating has the edge over conventional dating apps.
“Metaverse matchmakers are the antidote to appearance-driven apps like Tinder and OkCupid,” Mullen says. On these apps, you are judging someone in milliseconds based on the shape of their nose, or whether they have a Sports Illustrated body or not, continues Mullen. In VR, it’s quite the opposite—substance steals looks’ thunder. “You first get to know each other’s personalities on a deep level in Nevermet, and when you meet up IRL, you have this foundation in your relationship that’s really strong and you take it from there,” Mullen says. There’s also a big LGBTQ+ community of people who, for various reasons, may find it much easier to express themselves in VR. And because the metaverse knows no physical boundaries, it allows people living in rural spaces where the dating pool might be meager to cast a wider net.
That you have a wider choice of potential mates is something Glowacki definitely sees as a positive. She believes the real challenge comes with maintaining those relationships, though. “You need to consider lots of logistics when you do long-distance relationships,” she says. Even if you meet the love of your life on the opposite side of the world, there might be a lot of regret and resentment once one partner needs to upend their life for the couple to be together.
“Your social networks and your family members and your friends and culture are equally important,” Glowacki says. “It’s hard to take care of those if you move away.”
A recent survey showed that Generation Z (defined as those born between the mid-1990s and mid-2010s who are, in principle, the most confident users of technology—at least until Generation Alpha came along, but they’re not really dating yet), spend half their waking time on their phone. Mullen says this is something well-documented and not necessarily only for Gen Z: for each of the past ten years, we have all been on our phones more than the year before, he says.
“And I do know that for Gen Z there’s a huge population of them who have formed relationships on the internet with people they have never met IRL,” Mullen says. “Many people feel more comfortable in virtual spaces rather than IRL and digital relationships are only getting better and better and better.” This week, on Valentine’s Day, Nevermet became a year old and already counts thousands of users. For Mullen, we should look to the metaverse to celebrate the matchmaker of the future.
This weekend, Twitchin will be flying to Washington to meet Ethereal and spend two days together as Naomi and Erick. In March, Erick will be visiting Naomi in Texas for a week. The couple is well aware that, in real time, they are in the honeymoon phase, but, in their hearts, they feel their relationship has passed the test. Erick’s mother recently passed, Naomi’s grandfather went to hospice, and they went through all this together.
“We’ve only become stronger through this. I know couples who do not deal with this kind of stuff very well and have been together for years,” says Naomi. She believes Erick is her soulmate. “I had to go through what I went through in life to be with him.” “We met each other right when we needed each other. This wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for VR,” says Erick.
Next may come marriage and kids. “When that does happen, that’s going to be IRL,” says Naomi.