Extended Reality: Blurred lines: Dating in the metaverse

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 14, 2022 - February 20, 2022.
MapleStory was a popular MMORPG game where gamers could date virtually, just like John Lee (left) and Veron Chew (right)

MapleStory was a popular MMORPG game where gamers could date virtually, just like John Lee (left) and Veron Chew (right)

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If you grew up in the 2000s, MapleStory was an immensely popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), where people made friends online. The game played a role in budding romances as well, as it inspired players to forge deeper connections while carrying out quests.

This is how John Lee met his partner, Veron Chew, in 2008. While they did not start dating until recently, the game acted as a foundation for their friendship and subsequent relationship. Lee shares that the game provided them with an avenue to spend time together without the pressure to impress, unlike on dating apps.

“We had a little community, so it was a great general foundation for a solid friendship. It did give us a common ground to relate to each other. But knowing that Veron plays games regularly, it did allow me to be comfortable getting dorky or geeky around her,” he says.

Fast forward to today, meeting potential partners through MMORPG is still very much alive. With the emergence of the metaverse, however, dating via augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) — especially through games — might just become the norm in the near future.

Ministry XR’s chief technology officer Dr Andrew Yew tells Digital Edge that, in the early days of MMORPG, the quality of a game’s graphics was pretty basic, but that also enabled people to reveal their true personalities through their avatars, which can act as a façade.

But the disconnect between an individual’s gaming avatar and true self also served as an avenue for catfishing and, in extreme cases, digital abuse. While the same issues persist as games become more sophisticated with better graphics or incorporate AR and VR functions, these upgrades are expected to provide a more holistic perception of people online.

Some games have taken it a step further by incorporating social aspects into online games. “In the past, it was all about quests; but, now, some games allow players to do mundane things like fishing. They might design places in-game that can act as a romantic spot, so players can share intimate moments together,” Yew says.

“Some games also have spaces where weddings can be held. Gamers will then invite friends from the game to attend with their digital characters. All this is really pushing for the ability to have a fully fleshed-out love life in the game.”

With the emergence of the metaverse, which will incorporate elements of VR, AR and holograms, it is difficult to say how fast things will move along, says Olaf Kwakman, managing director of Silver Wings XR. But he is convinced that, in a couple of years, most of us will spend much more time online than we are doing now, especially in digital public spaces, to meet people.

“This concept of online dating in the metaverse will happen when people have access to spaces where they can walk around, say hi to other people and start a conversation. And if they hit it off, they can move to another space,” he says.

“The concept is so intriguing, so engaging, and there’s so much to explore, as there are so many features to be added. People can go shopping together, play games and experience so many things. I’m convinced that this will take off.”

So, how different will online dating be once the metaverse and AR/VR wearables become ubiquitous? “It’ll be no different than meeting someone in a bar in Bangsar,” quips Joseph Anthony, Ministry XR’s chief experience officer.

He explains that, essentially, people can hang out in different locations in the metaverse through their avatars. This also means that people can walk up to another avatar and interact with them in the metaverse as well, which is similar to how people meet in real life.

But Joseph believes the metaverse will elevate the online dating experience by complementing current dating apps, which in most cases tend to result in surface-level interactions. “Dating in the metaverse or using VR functions will be an encouraging first step to dating. Metaverse dating can act as a ‘test date’ to see whether the conversations last and whether chemistry is there,” he says.

“It may not be for everyone but it could act as an assessment tool for potential partners, better than Tinder, because it is an extension of your life in the VR world. It’s a safer space before meeting in person.”

When online dating started, many were hesitant and did not believe that online dating would work, as physical interaction was deemed crucial to building relationships. Kwakman says many people were proven wrong when online dating took off, but now developers are looking to make it better.

“Now, there is a need to make online dating more engaging, instead of having a straightforward texting conversation. And the metaverse fits in well, as people get to properly interact with each other and they get to choose different places to ‘go’ to.

“For example, you can go to the mountains of Tibet for a walk and, with a click of a button, you can be watching a movie together at the cinema. Later on, you could be playing games at a virtual arcade. And all of this can be done in a safe environment, where each person can decide how anonymous they want to be.”

Between virtual and reality

As the metaverse enables the convergence of different technologies in one space, the line between virtual and reality will be blurred even more. Kwakman says while the concept of the technology is to meet in a virtual space with avatars, it can further expand to accommodate holograms in real spaces.

“There will come a point where people, while on a date, can provide the permission to allow a hologram of themselves to be projected in the other person’s room and vice versa. This is also part of the metaverse and it will provide greater engagement and experience,” he says.

A person’s avatar will play a role as well. Joseph says there may be instances in which people would create a sexy avatar of themselves to get the attention of others in the metaverse (like in online games), but what people may want instead is to look at an avatar that is a true representation of a person.

“People will really need to dig deep and search within themselves to get real about who they are and what they want to portray in their avatar, to get the attention of the people they are looking for.

“In the end, a lot of people tend to have an avatar that looks like themselves because they see it as an extension of their self-identity,” says Kwakman.

Avatars can be interest-based too, says Joseph. For example, if you are into photography and want to meet people who are like-minded, the avatar would probably hold a camera in the metaverse. If a person is into arts, their avatar would be seen at an NFT gallery to meet potential dates.

He says: “It’s sort of like marketing yourself. Do you want to be a nerdy professor? Do you want to be a punk rocker? It focuses on the qualities a person puts forward and, in turn, it can bring about positive and productive results when it comes to online dating. And it is safe too.

“For now, since there aren’t that many metaverse dating sites, it can be an extension from regular dating sites. Meeting in real life can be scary for a lot of people, so this is quite a nice bridge before having to meet someone in person for the first time.”

Yew says apps such as Tinder are also evolving to include AR and VR elements in the app. Another application, called FlirtAR, is already in the market, where it uses AR to show singles who are using the same app. Their faces are circled on a screen as users pass them physically in the street. When a bubble pops up, it shows a picture of the user in question, along with their name and age.

Adoption for these types of applications can be difficult and tricky to get into the market, but Yew foresees many more players coming into the metaverse dating space, as it is still expanding.

“In the initial stages, things such as user experience and effective matching need to be refined and, while that goes on, there will be user drop-offs. For the app to work, there has to be a lot of users for other users to see the value,” Yew explains.

Digital privacy and security are immediate hurdles

As with any online application, dating using AR and VR elements in the metaverse has a set of digital security challenges. In essence, the challenges are similar to those of online dating, such as catfishing, verbal abuse via text or the sending of unsolicited images and videos, says Kwakman. With the metaverse, there is the added element of voice interaction that needs to be taken into account as well.

“The voice interaction helps identify the person on the other side, such as their gender and age, but people will still need to be as careful, just as they would be on normal dating sites,” he says.

“If there are no boundaries within a specific digital space, then people can share their camera and put up images and no one will be able to tell me what is not allowed. It’s just like how when social media started, there was no limitation to what could be shared. Moderation came later on and I think, now, developers are thinking of it.

“Safety and moderation should be stringent and developed to make sure that it can be automated to detect whether people are being appropriate within a space.”

Another conundrum for developers is balancing a user’s right to anonymity with making sure that people are not catfishing other users. Yew says companies such as Ministry XR are there to provide databases and systems to protect a user’s privacy and right to anonymity while preventing them from digital abuse. This is where Web 3.0 and the concept of self-sovereign identity (SSI) comes in, he says, where digital identities are managed in a decentralised manner.

“Blockchain has no central authority and is managed by the whole ecosystem. SSI in this case uses blockchain to verify your identity without exposing a person’s user identity. We can verify parameters, like whether a person is male or female or of a certain age. It allows for better transparency, just like with Bitcoin and NFTs,” Yew explains.

“It’s a pretty new concept and companies like Microsoft are contributing to its proliferation.”

There will be new tools developed to facilitate not just online dating but also meeting people in general in the metaverse. Kwakman says this should all happen in the backend, where there will be a moderator who kicks out participants who misbehave.

“Soon, we’ll have artificial intelligence do that as well, that will monitor the content that people are sharing and make sure that when things go wrong, they will automatically get kicked out or blocked or something along those lines,” he says.

The future of metaverse dating will depend, however, on the accessibility of AR and VR wearables. Yew foresees wearables becoming ubiquitous and the adoption of AR and VR will become more mainstream. He adds that innovations are being done with AR contact lenses.

“Right now, these wearables are produced on a small scale at a very high cost, but it’s just a matter of time before the hardware and technology mature to the point where it’s easy for people to adapt and even make it as part of a home’s infrastructure,” he says.

Kwakman concurs, adding that wearables are the way forward with online dating, especially with integrated technologies, which will be very powerful.

“Accessibility is now very important. What we have seen over the past couple of years, in general, is that the use of VR headsets is a bit of a hassle. Not everyone has it; so, if you want to interact with others, it might be difficult. Right now, web-based platforms allow for easy accessibility, which can be used on laptops and mobile phones, making it more adoptable.”