Is Surreal-life Romance Here For Real?

By Felicia Tan

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we take a look at whether the metaverse is the next big thing in love.

A romantic stroll amid cherry blossoms in a Japanese-themed garden, followed by a friendly game of ten-pin bowling, capped with a relaxing soak in a traditional onsen. A fitting finish to what seems like the perfect tryst… except that it never quite happened. Or did it?

Welcome to the world of meta-dating, where instead of browsing the wares at high-street fashion stores, amorous couples mouse over on-screen wardrobe options to dress up their avatars. They don immersive headsets to meet their sweethearts in painstakingly detailed digital realms, without ever leaving the comfort – and for some, the security – of their rooms.

In the past, people first met their future spouses wherever large groups congregated – schools, churches, bars and the like. But in future, more and more are looking to hook up in the metaverse, says a recent survey by online matchmaking platform Dating.com, which found that a third of singles are planning to venture into meta-dating in 2023.

What is the metaverse?

Simply put, the metaverse is where physical and cyber worlds come together: to cross the threshold, people create avatars, which digitally represent them in a virtual space where they can interact in almost every way they could in real life, such as work, play – and even, you know, date.

Metaverse’s key technology is the virtual reality (VR) headset. These head-mounted devices envelop the eyes, typically containing stereoscopic displays to trick the brain into perceiving a three-dimensional virtual world. Headphones, and sensors to track the user’s movement and orientation, complete the package. Full sensory bodysuits exist, transmitting the sensation of touch. But at up to US$20,000 a pop, they are currently too costly for mainstream use.

Although it was Mark Zuckerberg who had thrust the word into public consciousness in 2021 in his outline of Facebook’s future, the concept existed as far back as 2003, when San Francisco developer released Second Life. The online multimedia platform differed from the incumbent massively multiplayer online games (MMORPGs) by having no set end objective – the sole purpose of Second Life was for users to interact.

Dating on the metaverse

Meta-dating can be considered a natural evolution of online dating, providing an arguably better toolbox for finding a match. Replacing a facepic with an avatar de-emphasises appearance and emphasises personality, “making physical attraction one of several factors rather than the primary way people connect”, says the CEO of Nevermet, a meta-dating app, in a New York Times interview.

And instead of endlessly exchanging texts, the potential couple donning their devices and sensors in the metaverse could easily take each other out for that proverbial test drive and tell if there’s chemistry through live conversation and body language. Some even claim to experience “phantom touch”, a phenomenon where they feel in real life – say a touch on their arm – what is happening to their VR avatars.

Launched last Valentine’s Day, Nevermet is the first meta-dating app. Flirtual quickly followed in May (although its developers say that it is a reboot of a 2018 service called Virtual Reality Looking-for-Partner). These two send users to third-party platforms such as VRChat after matching them. But the third, Planet Theta, which will launch soon, is more ambitious and will host its own virtual worlds. Nevermet reveals that, in its first six months, more than 200,000 metaverse relationships were made on the platform. Flirtual claims that more than half of its users are between 18 and 30.

So far, the online dating big boys appear to be sitting out the meta-dating revolution. Tinder pulled the plug on its foray into the space (as well as scrapping its in-app currency initiative) after disappointing earnings forced it to cut back on R&D. Bumble has relayed that it intends to prepare for “whatever emerges” in the realm, but has yet to demonstrate a product.

The business of meta-dating

According to market and consumer data provider Statista, the global online dating industry is worth some US$3 billion this year, having doubled in the past six years. If we accept that meta-dating will support or even supplant online dating, the meta-dating industry could mean big money, albeit it being in its infancy now.

Meta-dating apps, like their predecessors, operate largely on a freemium model. That is, the base service is free, but additional features attract a fee. But bigger revenue growth opportunities may come from outside of the box, courtesy of other metaverse developments.

First, fashion houses are purveying purely digital couture for surprisingly tidy sums. In 2021, Dolce & Gabbana set a US$5.7 million record for fashion non-fungible tokens (NFTs), selling a nine-piece collection featuring dresses, crowns and a men’s suit via luxury marketplace UNXD. Fashion’s cross-over into the meta-dating space would not be too farfetched – avatars need to be dressed for the hot date, after all. A precedent already exists. Fast Company reports that a player on a game called Aglet has spent US$15,000 on virtual clothes.

Similarly, the meta-dating scene can be additional revenue streams for movie studios and music producers keen to screen their films and conduct their concerts to budding lovebirds. According to research by creative agency Wunderman Thompson, of those interviewed who have heard of the metaverse, 78 per cent are keen to attend a digital concert, rising to 87 per cent for digital movie screenings. Fully virtual engagement ceremonies and weddings – connecting far-flung friends and family who may not have the time or wherewithal to travel – may not be that far off.

Augmenting, not replacing

As a growth industry, meta-dating looks set to take off. After all, it is projected that by 2035, more people will meet their partners online than offline and around one in six marriages will start online.

To be sure, a future of fully virtual dating and marriage and everything in between could sound terribly dystopian. Yet, legitimate niche applications do exist, such as for lonely octogenarians in nursing homes who are otherwise too weak to physically meet their loved ones. Or to tide over the next pandemic – if and when that happens.

Elsewhere, meta-dating could open up the horizons for those living in small towns with limited dating options. Or to the socially awkward who may need a helping hand building up confidence for the first in real life meet-up. Planet Theta’s founder hopes, users will take time to connect outside of the metaverse.

“It ultimately ends with you having a relationship with somebody that hopefully you love and ultimately live with, not something where you’re trying to talk endlessly in VR only,” he says in a Forbes interview.

Safety has also risen as a concern, as meta-dating spaces are loosely regulated. VRChat, for example, has been criticised for exposing its younger users to alternative lifestyles deemed socially unacceptable. More needs to be done to protect the vulnerable in this area. Singapore has started efforts to help victims of online harms with the launch of SG Her Empowerment; for any efforts to be effective, the scope of online harms will need to include those inflicted through metaverse interactions.

Meanwhile, proxy economic indicators prove that the world has not given up on in-person love and interaction yet. In the US, planned Valentine’s Day spending – flowers, chocolates and that all-important dinner date – is slated to hit US$25.9 billion this year, up US$2 billion from last year. Couples also look intent on completing the night with a bang (but may not be ready to have children yet). The global condom market is slated to grow from US$9.9 billion in 2021 to US$19.15 billion by 2029, according to market research company GreyViews.

In fact, meta-dating is augmenting the love lives of people in the physical world, especially for those who are meeting romantic partners in cyberspace when they would not in their day-to-day worlds. 

Perhaps the surreal has to still feel, and be, real. So while meta-dating might be here to stay, the death of physical relationships has been greatly exaggerated. 

This article was published in The Business Times on 3 February 2023.


TSMP law corporation