In the Metaverse, the Perfect Date Might Actually Exist — If You Can Find It
First we get legs, then we find love.
When I first tried to make friends in the metaverse, it didn’t go well. I put on my Oculus Quest VR headset and fired up the Horizon Venues app, hoping to go to my first virtual concert — Billie Eilish’s set from the 2021 Governors Ball festival had just been released in VR.
I made an avatar that looked like me, with shoulder-length blonde hair, glasses, wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and materialized in a virtual foyer. But before I had chance to make my way to the door with Billie’s face on it, someone with a male avatar with pale skin, short black hair and a deep voice began shouting my name repeatedly, grabbing at my avatar with one hand and wildly waving their other hand in front of me. I instantly forgot how to both block people and how to move around without feeling dizzy. Once I finally escaped — by scuttling into a corner — I desperately wanted to leave and throw up.
But listen to Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse, and you’d believe it’s a utopia. The reality is more concerning, with reported cases of VR harassment, hate speech, and child grooming already circulating. Since my own encounter, I have used my VR headset again, but only for solo experiences — to play a 3D puzzle game, to go on an International Space Station tour, and to experience a nature documentary that took me to the bottom of the ocean from my bedroom.
A year on, the memory of my first social VR encounter still gives me a headache. But I also know some people have formed meaningful friendships in the metaverse, and even transitioned virtual relationships into real-life partnerships. Do I need to feel wary about meeting people in VR spaces? Or do virtual worlds simply mirror the complexities of real world social interactions, where both harassment and genuine connection coexist?
A match made in the metaverse
In the metaverse, people make connections in much the same way as in the physical world – through mutual friends, chance meetings, and dating apps. Metaverse-specific dating platforms sound intriguing, but the user experience isn’t vastly different from conventional apps, like Tinder or Bumble. To use some of the most popular metaverse dating apps like Nevermet or Flirtual, you first sign up via the web or a mobile app, and then create a profile by uploading your photos and writing a bio. The major difference between the metaverse and more anodyne apps is that instead of choosing profile images of you in the real world (dogs are a plus), you upload pictures of your virtual avatars — your metaverse self or perhaps even selves.
For the growing people familiar with VR social spaces, this is a quick and straightforward process. And the numbers really are going up. The CEO of Nevermet, Cam Mullen, tells me that “nearly 1 million relationships” (mutual connections) were created in the app in its first year — it turns one, he tells me, on Valentine’s Day. Flirtual, meanwhile, has more than 40,000 users, a company spokesperson tells me: “We grew about five times in users and 15 times in usage in 2022.”
For the rest of us, creating your date-ready metaverse persona, taking a selfie, and then sending that image from your VR headset to your phone is both complicated and a drag. Even though I have been in the metaverse before, after a year keeping myself to myself, it takes a little trial and error to get a selfie I like enough to show to the VR world. I end up with two. One I take in the popular social platform VRChat in which I’m a cheerful stick of butter. Another I take in Horizon Worlds, where I appear as a somewhat unsettling cartoon version of myself.
Next, I filled out a profile for dating apps Nevermet and Flirtual, explaining that I’m new to social VR and writing about my experience.
Unfortunately, the Nevermet sign-up process stalled as I tried to verify that my butter selfie did indeed contain no real faces. So I began my metaverse dating journey on Flirtual, which operates similarly to Tinder but with the added functionality of being able to signal if you think a potential match could be a romantic interest (tap a heart) or a friend (tap a thumbs-up).
“We stayed up till five in the morning, and she passed out with her head leaned on me in another world.”
I’ll admit: I was tempted to tap the heart icon a few times as I read through some interesting profiles, but I ended up feeling strange when I checked out the profile pictures. The faces staring back at me looked like Lovecraftian monsters, pastel-hued rabbits, and towering warriors armed with swords. I opted for a safe approach, tapping the thumbs-up icon for friendship instead. Sadly, I didn't receive any mutual matches on my first day. But I received a handful of hearts and thumb-ups from other users — but I couldn’t see them as Flirtual charges a $9.99 monthly fee for that privilege.
When I finally got approved to join Nevermet, the experience was similar. I got a few mutual connections, but two didn’t reply to my overtures. The third suggested a virtual-reality meetup, but our conflicting time zones presented a challenge — their only available time was at 4 a.m. on my side of the world. And while I’m open to the possibility of love, I’m not willing to sacrifice precious sleep for it.
My initial experience using virtual reality dating apps was underwhelming, but others have found success.
“I met my partner on Nevermet,” Zero*, an 18-year-old man from Georgia tells me. “After that, we met in VR.” (Names marked with an asterisk have been shortened to protect individuals’ privacy.)
Meet someone on Tinder, and you might take them on a coffee date or stroll through a park. Yet the possibilities in the metaverse are vast, offering potential love birds a multitude of dating experiences, from visiting a private cinema in a forest to flying through the cosmos. The seemingly limitless options can be both exhilarating and overwhelming.
“We had no idea where we should’ve gone,” Zero says. “So I just took her to a world where I could fly jets because that makes me feel comfortable.” Their first flying date was a success.
“We stayed up till five in the morning, and she passed out with her head leaned on me in another world.”
VR dating apps are popular, but most people meet potential partners through organic encounters. Zeon*, a 32-year-old from California, initially used VR for single-player games. “My curiosity got the better of me, so I joined VRChat,” he says. “I met my girlfriend two months later in the Black Cat.”
VRChat is a platform that contains thousands of sprawling worlds and the Black Cat is one of them — it takes the form of a bar and restaurant where many VR users congregate.
“I wasn’t looking to date someone in VR,” Zeon says. But after they met in the Black Cat, Zeon and the woman started hanging out as friends.
What strikes me about their story is they grew closer by both noticing the ways their real-life bodies and faces moved. “Our first interaction was when she complimented me on my posture because I had full body tracking,” he tells me.
This means he had sensors at his real-life home that mirrored how his body moved onto his avatar. Her own avatar’s mirroring of her physical gestures also drew Zeon’s attention.
“We were in a movie world talking, and she tilted her head and said ‘what’ in such a flirtatious way that I could not miss the intention, and it hit me in the chest,” Zeon says. “We started hanging out more, talking all the time, going to movie worlds, doing everything together in VR.”
“Our first interaction was when she complimented me on my posture because I had full body tracking.”
M*, a 20-year-old woman, tells me how she met her partner in VRChat, too. “We met in a social server called The Midnight Rooftop,” she recalls, a “chill world” where you can sit on the roof of a conservatory at night in the rain. “We bonded over our love of video games almost instantly,” M says. “He became my ‘player 2’ in every single game.”
Inspired by these heart-warming stories and disillusioned by my VR dating app experience, I put on my Quest 2 headset and fired up VRChat. I spent ten minutes running through a patchwork of colorful fields alongside a giant robot. We kept waving at each other but didn’t speak. I went to the Black Cat — but I had to leave. The sojourn was cut short due to the overwhelming amount of hateful speech I encountered.
Eager to find a better experience, I ventured into Meta's VR platform, Horizon Worlds. I went to a comedy club, and someone ran up to me (or rather, floated up to me, there are still no legs in Meta’s metaverse) and started shouting. Thankfully, two other members quickly stepped in to help me mute them. After the intervention, we started chatting and I shared my interest to explore dating in VR. Instead of opting for a romantic dinner at a virtual restaurant, one of my new friends suggested we go on a tour of various virtual worlds for a fun-filled friend date.
My new American friends quickly clocked my British accent and took me on a virtual tour of a world called A Very British Pub for a virtual pint. We then visited a carnival, floated up to the sky holding giant balloons, and played a water pistol firing game. We bonded over my lack of coordination (which I jokingly attributed to the VR controller). Our virtual date continued on to a neon-lit laser tag world and a massive shooting game where I got to (playfully) blow up my new friends with grenades.
Finally, we visited a magnificent virtual mansion by the ocean, where we splashed in the waves as the Sun dipped below the horizon, painting the sky in pink and orange hues.
I didn't find my soulmate in the metaverse. But my experience was ultimately invigorating and gave me a renewed faith in the potential of VR as a means of making new connections.
Animal, vegetable, or mineral?
When I told friends I was writing about dating in the metaverse, their first reaction was not of concern for safety, but skepticism about authenticity. “What if you get catfished?” was the common question. The anonymity of the metaverse does raise valid concerns about the true identity of your virtual date as anyone can assume any form, from a dinosaur to a piece of cheese (or butter, in my case).
“Catfishing is becoming a standard thing in VR dating,” Zero says. “A lot of people wear buff, tall, and ‘horny’ avatars, and that goes for female avatars too.” But he also acknowledges that choosing to be whoever or whatever you like on any given day is part of the appeal.
“Not worrying about how you look can really help people if they have problems with themselves in real life,” Zero says. “VRChat helps many people with social anxiety, myself included.”
The metaverse allows people to experiment with how they look, from trialling different hair colors to experiencing what it’s like to move around a virtual space and interact with people as a different gender or even a different species. I found both selecting a ridiculous-looking, pre-built avatar in VRChat and creating my own doppelganger in Horizon Worlds incredibly fun and liberating.
“You are forced to view someone’s personalities and quirks before looks, which makes it a whole lot more intimate.”
Zeon, for his part, views his avatar as an extension of his personal style. “My avatar might as well be a fancy suit or outfit for the day,” he says. “While something may change, the general style doesn’t.” Zero, meanwhile, likes to embody his favorite fictional characters. “I hide behind a Spider-Man 2099 avatar,” he tells me.
Because you can become anyone and anything, appearance may become less important in metaverse dating, allowing individuals to concentrate on forging deeper connections. “You are forced to view someone’s personalities and quirks before looks, which makes it a whole lot more intimate,” M says.
The fear of being misled by someone's avatar is understandable, but I suspect catfishing may become less of a problem as the metaverse evolves. But a more pressing concern is the potential for age-related issues in the metaverse, particularly in platforms such as VRChat, which has already faced criticism for child safety problems. VRChat says behavior that jeopardizes childrens’ safety will not be tolerated on its platform, It regularly removes this kind of content, as well as problematic users and has a range of reporting features.
But it is hard to police vast open worlds that anyone can download and play.
A new VR dating app called Planet Theta (launching on February 14) aims to address some of the major problems with social VR spaces – especially if you’re looking for love.
“Scammers and catfishers are destroying dating apps,” Chris Crew, CEO at FireFlare Games, the publisher of Planet Theta, tells me. “We’ve set out to end this problem by requiring IDs to be part of our secure dating system that effectively blocks scammers, bots, catfishers, and underage users.” Planet Theta also has a different mechanic from other VR dating apps. Instead of fussing about with an app first, everything takes place in VR through a series of short dates to test chemistry before you see someone’s profile and pictures – like metaverse speed dating.
Does it feel real for you?
The VR daters I spoke to for this story all shared their experiences of building intimacy through virtual touch. They described the phenomenon of "phantom touch", where someone can "feel" their avatar being touched in the virtual world as if it were real and without the use of additional technology. Although limited research exists on phantom touch in VR, it’s thought to be similar to the perception of phantom limbs and phantom pain.
Zeon says he’d meet his girlfriend in private rooms — public sex is against VRChat’s Community Guidelines — and phantom touch enabled him to “feel” the sensations when their relationship turned sexual. VRChat’s Dynamic Penetration System (DPS) system also helped, a way to make it look like your avatar is penetrating someone else’s or vice versa. But if users aren’t content with phantom touch, some devices add real-life sensations to their experiences. You can buy Bluetooth-enabled sex toys from brands like Lovense, which can be synced up to VRChat. If someone initiates sexual touch virtually, the toy responds in real-life.
A whole range of haptic devices allow you to “feel” virtual touch in different ways on different parts of your body. For example, if you’re wearing a haptic vest and someone touches your chest in VR, you’d feel pressure in the same spot. This kind of haptic technology is crucial in elevating virtual experiences. Touch enhances sensory immersion, making the experience more vivid and realistic. For example, the sensation of raindrops landing on your forearms as you adventure through a virtual jungle, rumbling explosions in a shooting game, or a partner's touch during a virtual date can all be heightened through the use of haptic technology. While we’re already able to see and hear virtual environments, it takes us a step further by allowing us to feel them. New advancements are also underway that aim to bring the senses of smell and taste into VR.
As haptic technology advances, it’s likely to move away from cumbersome suits and gloves. Researchers are exploring ways to provide touch sensations without the need for additional equipment. For instance, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a method using ultrasonic transducers integrated into a VR headset to transmit sound waves to a user's lips and mouth, creating the feeling of rain or cobwebs on the face. It’s not hard to imagine how a similar kind of haptic technology could be used to enhance VR dating, intimacy and sex.
As VR technology improves, will people live out their entire relationships in the metaverse, giving up on real-life love? “VR is rarely the end goal for a relationship,” Anthony Tan, the CEO and Co-founder of Flirtual, tells me. “Most people going on VR dates through Flirtual are seeking a relationship that will transition into real life.”
“The second we saw each other, it was like we have known each other forever.”
I’m not sure I’d have believed Tan if I hadn’t heard VR dating stories myself that resulted in a real-life connection. Sure, this might be the exception rather than the rule — I saw profiles on Nevermet that said they were looking for strictly virtual relationships and nothing else — but it was still a surprise.
When Zeon and his partner met in VR, they lived in different states, but now they live together. “She’s here with her Index [Valve Index VR headset], and we’re making plans for vacations, more equipment, even turning my garage into a dedicated VR room.”
“When we met IRL for the first time, it was in an airport. We decided to meet halfway since I’m on the east coast and he’s on the west coast,” M tells me, recalling her first time meeting her partner in reality. “We were both incredibly anxious, but it was just with excitement more than nerves.”
Despite knowing each other in VR for some time, M says it didn’t compare to how special meeting offline was. “The second we saw each other, it was like we have known each other forever,” M says. “Actually feeling his skin was surreal. I’m convinced he is my soulmate.”
Initially, I was skeptical, but after hearing first-hand stories, I believe that the metaverse holds the potential to deepen our understanding of love, rather than simply replicating or cheapening real-life relationships. The possibility of forming genuine connections in virtual worlds could enrich our experiences and broaden our perspectives on what love truly means. I think that’s worth embracing and celebrating.