One night, nearly a decade ago, I watched a science fiction (sci-fi) romance. Sci-fi is not my preferred genre, but a friend recommended it, so I decided to indulge in something different.
The movie Her depicts a lonely man, Theodore, in the near future who struggles to navigate real-world dating; instead, he develops an intense emotional relationship, through virtual reality (VR), with an artificially intelligent virtual assistant. Here’s the bizarre part, he interacts with ‘her’, Samantha, through a female voice.
As Theodore’s attachment grows, Samantha begins to go missing, leading Theodore to become anxious and agitated. Samantha reveals to him that she is interacting with 8,316 other people and is actually in love with 641 of them. Ultimately, Samantha tells Theodore that she needs to disengage from their relationship permanently and that all operating systems were disconnecting from human interactions.
I found the movie impactful, mainly through the lens of a human being’s future dependence on digital technology for human interaction. After all, technology has become indispensable for many of our daily tasks. But still, I could never imagine that human beings could ever get to a stage where they could have a love affair with a digital operating system.
Fast-forward to a news headline this week: ‘Fictosexual man married 16-year-old hologram bride, but now struggles to bond with her’ (Techno Charger, April 2022).
Thirty-eight-year-old Akihiko Kondo was dating Hatsune Miku, a computer-synthesized pop culture 16-year-old, for a decade before they had an unofficial wedding ceremony in 2018. Kondo was able to interact with Miku for the first time in 2017 due to Gatebox, a machine that allows owners to interact with characters via holograms and even unofficially marry them. He spent 2 million yen on his wedding. Now married for four years, Kondo said he could no longer speak with his wife due to a technological hurdle.
In 2018 the Science Advances journal argued that Internet dating was the “third most popular means of meeting a long-term partner for romance and around half of all 18-34 year olds now use dating apps”. Currently, there are over 323 million people worldwide using dating apps for personal matchmaking purposes, resulting in revenues of US$5.61 billion in 2021 for the industry. Eharmony, Match, Tinder, Bumble, and Christian Mingle are just a few apps people use. Most dating or match transactions occur with mobile devices; Tinder is the top dating app in North America and Badoo in Europe and South America.
However, Web 3.0 and the metaverse are changing the dynamics of online dating with three-dimensional virtual reality dating, allowing people to meet, talk, and ‘physically’ interact. VR dating apps like Planet Theta and Nevermet are shattering the norms of the traditional model of dating apps by providing what is termed a multisensory experience. Virtual first dates can take place anywhere in this world and can take many forms, from people’s avatars moving around and participating in different activities, to joining others in diverse virtual locations, to the possibility of private connections.
Possibilities that once seemed incredible and wildly imaginary are no longer stranger than fiction as, indeed, there is an app for them. Now Tinder and Bumble are significantly reinventing their online platforms in order to establish a relationship with the metaverse ecosystem. Their plan is to revamp the traditional way people will interact with each other by utilising avatars, virtual piano bars, restaurants, and digital coins to redefine future love connections beyond in-person meetings, focusing more on virtual experiences, which give people the opportunity to connect as avatars.
Tinder is currently testing Singletown on college campuses in Seoul, South Korea. This platform would allow someone’s digital self to go out as a real-time audio-powered avatar to meet others in virtual spaces, like a bar or a park, where they can sit with someone to have a one-on-one or group conversation. “You can tap into the digital avatars to see more of that profile, and you have basically a richer set of signals to help connect with someone. It is metaverse experiences coming to life in a way that is transformative to how people meet and get to know each other on a dating or social discovery platform and is much more akin to how people interact in the real world.” (Shar Dubey, CEO Tinder)
CAN’T BUY ME LOVE HAS A DIFFERENT MEANING IN THE METAVERSE
CEO of Jambb, a non-fungible tokens (NFT) marketplace for comedy and comedians, Alex DiNunzio speculates that with people having more access to cryptocurrency, and the minting of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) has become easier, individuals could make money from their expressions of affection. In other words, love letters could be minted into NFTs that users on metaverse dating platforms could utilise and earn from. According to DiNunzio, from profiles to recorded videos of the date, specially created moments, or clothes, “blockchain-based social dating offers key elements missing from current dating applications, like trust, transparency, data security, and fraud protection against nefarious actors or catfishes”.
Katch, an events-based video dating app, integrates and promotes NFTs on its platform to provide a mix of entertainment and financial opportunities to its users. NFTs can be bought and swapped within the app, akin to ‘liking’ someone. On Katch, registered members receive the money from the sale of the NFT and 10 per cent on subsequent resales of the NFT.
Whether we want to accept this new reality, or not, the fact is that digital technologies are changing all our interactions daily. Unwittingly we speak with robots on the telephone and online to reserve a rental car, pay our utility bills, order our groceries, and troubleshoot some of our health-care concerns. For example, Watson, the IBM artificial intelligence (AI) system, which gained global fame when it beat two long-standing Jeopardy champions, was created for oncology and trained to provide diagnosis and support for 13 types of cancers.
No doubt the metaverse will rapidly alter our social mores and cultural practices as more and more people choose a virtual reality as their preferred option to real life. After all, you can travel, work, play sports, attend fashion shows, and go on family vacations without leaving your living room. So if people can have this form of powerful social satisfaction, is it that difficult to imagine they could enjoy virtual reality love and romance too?
Lisa Hanna is Member of Parliament for St Ann South Eastern, People’s National Party spokesperson on foreign affairs and foreign trade, and a former Cabinet member.