In an episode of the popular Netflix show, Black Mirror, a married man ends up having sex with his friend in a virtual reality game. The two debate whether the encounter was cheating because the immersive technology had allowed them to feel like they were touching each other.
Although the above scenario is purely fictional, it is no longer science fiction thanks to the metaverse, an alternate digital world that is powered by virtual reality (VR) technology.
The metaverse has garnered big investment recently from tech giants like Microsoft, Google, and most notably, Facebook-parent Meta, which, like its new name suggests, is refocusing on the emerging space. Some experts foresee the metaverse becoming a regular part of life, including travel, work, and play.
Romantic relationships are a natural extension. Companies are already starting to offer dating services that involve virtual reality, with avatars of the daters getting to know each other inside digital worlds.
While the metaverse brings with it exciting new possibilities for love and dating, it also brings uncertainties and a new set of rules that we have yet to navigate. Here’s what we know so far.
Why date in the metaverse?
Because the metaverse is supposed to be a simulation of real life, VR dating is more life-like than traditional apps. It’s easier to gauge your compatibility with someone in the metaverse because you have more ways to meet and interact with them. Traditional dating apps and video calls limit you to liking pictures, texting, and talking whereas the metaverse better simulates real-life such as meeting in a virtual location, engaging in a shared activity, and forming a more organic connection.
SX Noir, who is the president of Women of Sextech, told Fortune, “I’ve seen VR spaces that help people meet in Hawaii or at a cafe. The metaverse gives people more chances to relate to each other and have day-to-day interactions.”
Noir thinks certain communities could benefit from the metaverse by making it easier for them to connect, no matter where they live. For example, through the metaverse, a queer individual in the U.S. can now meet another halfway across the world, which means a higher chance of finding a partner with similar sexual preferences. Services for the LGBTQ community include AltSpace VR, a virtual reality platform that hosts live events like the LGBTQ+ & Friends meetup.
“The queer community was able to connect with people on a scale much larger than in real life because they were able to find people in the same niche as them,” Noir told Fortune.
Grace Lee, a dating coach, suggested using the metaverse like “how you would use a first date Zoom call in a screening type of way.” But she acknowledges that it has limits and suggests that after developing a connection in VR, daters should take the relationship into real life—or at least a phone or video call.
“It’s so hard to gauge chemistry without the subtext of being in person. For most people who want a long-term relationship, it’s eventually going to have to move out of the screen,” said Dr. Holly Richmond, a sex therapist and sex tech consultant.
The metaverse as an equalizer
Dating coach Lee thinks VR spaces act as an equalizer in dating because they can give users a standard palette of hair, clothes, and accessories.
“There are no fancy neighborhoods and no one is paying the bill. So, all the social markers are removed and what you’re left with is the voice and the subtle things about communication that we may not realize in real life,” Lee said.
She compared the metaverse to the Netflix dating show, Love is Blind, in which participants don’t see potential partners until after they’ve committed to marrying them, forcing them to focus on the person’s personality instead of their physical appearance.
“If you’re a 5’2” guy in the world of dating –typically you’re at a disadvantage –but in the metaverse, height doesn’t matter,” Lee said.
She recalled matching a 24-year-old man with a 32-year-old woman for a metaverse date without them knowing each other’s ages. After the ages were revealed, the woman admitted that she would have never taken him seriously if she’d known how old he was beforehand.
“It made her question her own assumptions about age and maturity,” Lee shared.
Which apps offer metaverse dating?
Services like Tinder and Bumble are debuting services that let singles meet each other through virtual activities, events, and locations. In 2021, Match Group acquired Hyperconnect, a social media app that is testing a metaverse experience called Single Town, where users can meet at virtual restaurants and bars. Shar Dubey, CEO of Match Group, thinks Single Town gives people a dating experience that’s “more akin to how people interact in the real world.”
Another VR dating app called Nevermet, which is free to use, requires users to upload a profile of their avatar to match with other singles and go on VR dates. In a promising sign, a user of Nevermet wrote a review of the app, sharing how she met her now-husband through the platform.
“My husband and I met in VR Chat. We fell in love with each other’s voices which I think was very wholesome,” the user wrote. “We went on VR dates until I moved to be with him eight months later. We’ve been married for nine months, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Safety in the metaverse
Considering the huge number of online predators, and cases of catfishing, cyberstalking, and crypto-scams online, safety in the metaverse is a major concern. Recently, a woman’s avatar was gang-raped in Meta’s VR platform, Horizon Worlds, raising fears about the lack of security in digital worlds.
“Within 60 seconds of joining—I was verbally and sexually harassed. Three to four male avatars, with male voices, virtually gang-raped my avatar and took photos. As I tried to get away, they yelled—‘don’t pretend you didn’t love it’ and ‘go rub yourself off to the photo,’” Nina Patel, whose avatar was attacked, writes in a Medium post.
While many people dismissed Patel’s experience, arguing “avatars don’t have lower bodies to assault”, she says that since VR is designed to feel real to the mind and body, her “physiological and psychological response was as though it happened in reality.”
Patel, who also co-founded kids’ educational metaverse platform Kabuni, shared that she was unable to block the harassers or report the incident because she didn’t know the identities of the avatars. Soon after this incident, Meta added a safety feature called “Personal Boundary,” to prevent users from invading another avatar’s personal space.
“If someone tries to enter your Personal Boundary, the system will halt their forward movement as they reach the boundary,” Meta said.
Noir, from Women of Sextech, works with companies to create a code of conduct so that marginalized communities feel safer in the sex tech world. In an interview with Fortune, she voiced her concerns about the metaverse:
“I am terrified of the exploitation that could happen in these spaces. We have to hold companies responsible for how they handle these things,” she said. “As far as reporting and regulating it, we don’t even know how that’s going to happen..”
Relationship coaching in the metaverse
Lee, the dating coach, uses the metaverse to teach her clients to be better daters. Her VR platform, Datingverse, has private spaces where clients meet one-on-one while she moderates and observes their interaction.
Lee says the platform lets her replay dates for clients so she can provide feedback and discuss ways they can improve their dating chit-chat. The metaverse is better than purely video-streaming services like Zoom, she said, because it offers a more life-like experience free of distractions that are otherwise present in natural surroundings.
“It’s really transformational in being able to understand the way you interact with people and I don’t think we can do that in any other medium,” Lee told Fortune.
Dr. Richmond, the sex therapist and sex tech consultant, added that the metaverse would be a great stepping stone for people on the autism spectrum or those with extreme social anxiety. She recalled helping a client who was too nervous to date in real life to have an intimate chat with an A.I. sexbot.
“Technologies like the metaverse are all bridges to an in-person human connection. They are our first point of contact,” Dr. Richmond told Fortune.
Marriage in the metaverse
The metaverse is not just for dating. Because of the pandemic, an Indian couple tied the knot in the metaverse in a Hogwarts-themed wedding reception with 6,000 guests from all over the world. The bride’s late father was also present as an avatar.
In the U.S., an already-married Arizonian couple held a virtual wedding in the popular virtual world Decentraland, officiated by an Arizona Supreme Court justice. A local law firm organized the wedding documentation that included the couple’s metaverse marriage license and prenuptial agreement that were ‘notarized’ as non-fungible tokens (NFTs), and stored on the Ethereum blockchain.
In the U.S., a marriage requires the officiant to see the couple’s real faces, according to American Marriage Ministries, so a metaverse wedding is not yet legally binding. For now, a metaverse marriage is merely a virtual ceremony to include people who can’t attend the event in real life.
“The advantage with this technology is that it is focused on bringing people together. And if there’s one thing that we need right now, it’s to feel connected to each other,” an American metaverse bride told Euronews.
Redefining the rules of relationships
As VR technology continues to progress and blur the lines between the physical and digital worlds, it presents new opportunities for sexual experiences and infidelity. With the development of VR porn and haptic technology that lets users experience touch in the metaverse, people are increasingly concerned about how virtual interactions could impact real-life relationships.
In fact, many years ago, a British couple divorced in real life after the wife found her husband’s avatar having an affair with another woman’s avatar in the VR game Second Life.
This calls for couples to redefine the rules of their relationships and what constitutes cheating.
“Because every couple is different,” Dr. Richmond says “the easy way to define cheating is by asking yourself if your partner would be okay with whatever you’re doing. If the answer is no, then it’s cheating.”
The future of dating in the metaverse
Zach Schleien, the creator of video-based dating app, Filteroff, thinks the metaverse is a huge opportunity for the dating industry and that it will facilitate deeper connections between people. He’s working to make Filteroff accessible in VR and predicts a future in which ‘the metaverse will blur into reality and people will be able to feel each other’s presence.
Schleien is excited about how these developments will affect the dating process and even long-distance relationships.
“I think as the metaverse continues to advance, at some point, there will be a blurry line between an in-person date and being on a video date and you’ll be able to pick on the social cues to gauge chemistry with your current or potential partner. And I only see that as a positive thing,” he said.
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