Web site helps daters find real love in a virtual world
Paula Weisz’s favorite place to take her dates is the Millennium bar, where she can sip a glass of red wine and have a good conversation. She typically goes on one date per week with men she meets online at OmniDate.com.
For her dates, the 42-year-old single mother of two doesn’t get dressed up, doesn’t put on makeup, and doesn’t even need to leave the comfort of her living room sofa. And the Millennium won’t be found in any local phonebook.
“As a mom, I don’t have time to fix myself up to go out on dates,” said Weisz, a marketing manager from Toronto. “I can just get online from home and feel like I’m on a real date--without wasting time or spending any money.”
Weisz is among the growing number of people who are exploring a virtual world more familiar to online video gamers than to online daters, trying “virtual” dating as a way to meet people online in the hopes of finding love. Using three-dimensional avatars, users can go on “dates” in the virtual world, weeding out other daters until they find someone with the potential for a real-world rendezvous.
Advocates say virtual dating is the next step in the $800 million online dating industry, filling the gap between the static world of online dating--e-mailing, chatting or just viewing profiles--and face-to-face real world interaction.
“The gap can be filled by this simulated world that’s safe, virtual and fun,” said Ravit Abelman, who, with her husband Igor Kotlyar, founded both the OmniDate.com beta site and the OmniDate program. “People can move from the online world into the real world and not be strangers.”
Abelman and Kotlyar launched the free Toronto-based site in December, and it is the largest site created specifically for virtual dating with about 4,400 members. Social networking sites like Cyworld.com, and Second Life, which is not a web site but an online virtual dating program that claims 13 million members, have grown in popularity as ways to meet friends, and, more recently, to meet dates.
Through OmniDate, users choose avatars, or animated images, that will represent them on their dates. They are given the option to choose from six male or six female avatars, with each wearing a different outfit and hairstyle. For both genders, the avatars have one option each that clearly represents a person of color.
Virtual dates can include touring a museum gallery, going to a bar, listening to the user's choice of music in a lounge or even going to the beach. The avatars can interact with each other to express emotion. Type in “LOL,” for example, and users can make their avatars giggle. They can also direct them to blow kisses, hold hands, yawn and even roll their eyes to let the person on the other side of the screen know exactly how much they are or aren’t enjoying the date.
“When you think about starting a relationship, you think about flirting, which is the communication of attraction,” said Dr. Julie Albright, a lecturer in the University of Southern California's sociology department and an expert on online dating. “These nonverbal cues are absent in traditional dating sites, and this is where sites like OmniDate are different.”
Weisz agreed. She has gone on about fifteen virtual dates, which resulted in real-world dates with two men, one of whom she is still dating.
“It was like I already had the first date online and got the awkwardness out of the way,” said Weisz, who had for years used other online dating sites, including Plentyoffish.com and Yahoo personals. “It helped me feel really comfortable when we actually met, in a way that I wasn’t with other dating sites.”
In order to facilitate conversation, the virtual world in which the dates occur is filled with pop-ups of icebreaker games which, according to users, take the pressure off of having to figure out what to say.
“The idea is that through your reactions to the games and interactions with the avatars, you can show someone who you are, not just tell them,” said Abelman. “Sure, everyone says they are funny, but can you show me that you’re really funny?”
Jason Cappalino said that the icebreakers have helped him meet several women, including one “very special” real-world relationship.
“The games are great,” said the 56-year-old retired Army colonel who lives in Boise, Idaho. “They help you see how the other person thinks.”
In 2006, researchers at the Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology used special software to test the effect that virtual dating had on subsequent in-person dates. They found that people who interacted with each other in the virtual world through avatars had better chemistry in face-to-face meetings than people who had only viewed profiles.
“People will use any excuse to connect with others,” said the study’s co-author, Michael Horton, professor of marketing at Harvard University. “Even if they think the virtual world and the games are dumb, that’s fine, because at least that will give them common ground to start talking.”
The researchers found that most of the participants had been left unsatisfied with traditional online dating sites because their expectations were too high.
“People would be reading what they wanted to in profiles, only to be disappointed when they met the person offline,” said Jeana Frost, who co-authored the study as part of her doctoral dissertation. “But virtual dating forces people, be it through their avatars, to react to what’s happening around them, similar to a real date, and people can get to know each other in a more in-depth way.”
But Albright says the use of avatars does not necessarily encourage people to have realistic expectations either. The avatars, she says, are idealized images of beauty. “The male avatars have the strong, square jaw lines and are muscular, and the female avatars are beautiful and petite,” she said. “What happens when you meet in the real world and the person looks nothing like that?”
Many sites, such as Woome.com and Speeddate.com, are using video chatting to make the online dating experience more realistic. But for some daters, being on video may be intimidating.
“I can't think of anything more awful,” said Horton. “Two people staring at each other on a Web cam trying to figure out what to say.”
That’s what prompted the founder of Nomoredates.com, an upscale online dating site for young professionals, to partner with OmniDate to provide virtual dating for the site’s members.
“We provided a video chat platform so people could see each other when they spoke,” said Nomoredates.com founder Vekrum Kaushik. “But feedback from users showed that they were too worried about how they looked to enjoy the date. So we thought virtual dating might be a better option.”
Abelman says that ideally, all of the major online dating sites would see the value in partnering with OmniDate and using its virtual dating technology.
Whether virtual dating will become mainstream is questionable, and even Kaushik has his doubts about how his site’s members will react.
“The whole thing is a little bit geeky,” he said. “But I hope it catches on here.”