VR dating: What happens when the headset comes off? - Hindustan Times
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VR dating: What happens when the headset comes off?

BySimran Mangharam
Feb 23, 2024 05:34 PM IST

Our virtual avatars are going on coffee dates in the multiverse. Could our avatars feed our delusions, complicate the quest for The One?

It’s been a strange few years, hasn’t it? Apple’s launch of the Vision Pro, and Mark Zuckerberg’s rather earnest video on its demerits when compared with his Meta Quest, felt like shots ringing out. The world is about to change dramatically, again.

In an episode from the Netflix series Black Mirror, the video game avatars of two friends fall in love. Their passionate affair in the game leaves the friends questioning their own sexuality, friendship and the line between reality and fantasy. PREMIUM
In an episode from the Netflix series Black Mirror, the video game avatars of two friends fall in love. Their passionate affair in the game leaves the friends questioning their own sexuality, friendship and the line between reality and fantasy.

I, of course, have my eye on what virtual reality (VR) will do to the search for love, and I can’t help but think of how the pandemic intensified loneliness, and how quickly and readily the search for companionship moved online in those long months.

Entire relationships began, ran their course and ended, without the two people ever having met. And I saw, in some of my clients, how this made the experiences of love, happiness, intimacy and heartbreak that much more complicated.

Now, we are on the cusp of a new kind of virtual relationship: falling in love as avatars. There are those who argue that we needn’t be alarmed by this. In most relationships, they say, we create an image of the person we love, and then love them based partly on the image that lives in our heads.

We do this, in fact, with anyone who ignites even the slightest spark. This is human nature. Our curiosity and propensity for worldbuilding are also the reason we engage in people-watching, and make up stories about strangers who walk past us in a mall or at the airport.

With VR, that propensity for myth-making finds an outlet unlike anything it has had before. And already the divide is forming, between those who view avatars as the most unreal version of a human; and those who believe it to be no worse, and likely better, than many of the alternatives.

Already, avatars of people who have never met offline are going on virtual coffee dates, meeting at virtual bars, going “bungee-jumping” or enjoying a “simple hike” together.

Unsurprisingly, the first VR dating apps are beginning to rear their heads. Planet Theta, launched on February 14 by the US-based gaming studio FireFlare, is available via the gaming platform Steam.

Its stated mission is to “reimagine” dating and social engagement, using the power of virtual reality and artificial intelligence. In the Theta-verse, AI will screen and match avatars, with a view to creating successful pairings that may or may not translate into relationships offline.

I don’t mind admitting that I am both intrigued and alarmed. As a woman in her 40s, I have seen this arc stretch from the earliest days of the internet, through the birth of SMS and the pre-data days of chatting on apps such as ICQ and Yahoo!. Each new medium did help people find love (amid risk, of course; but what love is without risk?).

Matrimony and dating apps, and the bouquet of new relationship statuses, have to my mind been the most disruptive, given their heightened capacity for misuse.

I still believe that technology can help us solve some of our greatest problems; and at the individual level, wanting a partner and being unable to find one is right up there.

But I fear that VR may exacerbate the risks in ways that we haven’t yet begun to foresee. It is a medium designed, after all, to cater to the senses and use make-believe to spark strong emotion. Love is like a spark plug to the brain, even among the steadiest of us; what happens when we literally don’t have our feet on the ground?

I worry about how VR could play into our propensity for self-delusion, making it easier for people to mistake a mirage of love for the real thing. I worry about lonely people wandering in a digital marketplace that might sell them a dream, a half-dream or a bot. What concerns me most is that these people, eventually, will likely still be alone, with no one to eat dinner with; tell their troubles to; or turn to when they are ill.

What will they be left with, when the headset eventually comes off?

(Simran Mangharam is a dating and relationship coach and can be reached on simran@floh.in)

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