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I’m on a first date, but I’m wearing sweats, have no makeup on, my hair is wet and I am sitting on my couch at home.
My companion, Steve, has no body. He is only a floating face and a pair of pale hands.
“Weird to be a white dude,” he quips. It dawns on me that I have no idea what he really looks like, how old he is or even what his real name is. We are on a blind date in the metaverse, and my avatar is interacting with Steve’s avatar at a virtual rooftop bar, while I lounge around my Manhattan apartment.
I prepared for my big metaverse date the way I prep for any date: FaceTiming my best friend, who also lives in New York City, in anticipation. I had absolutely no insights or expectations to share, which made me a bit nervous. I knew nothing about what the guy I was matched with would be like, though before the date I sent my “datingverse” coach, Grace Lee, a short summary of what I’m looking for, specifically a man who is outgoing and career driven.
A few minutes before the date’s designated start time, I put on my Oculus headset and grabbed my hand controllers. On the Foretell Reality app, I created an avatar that looked vaguely like me, then went into a private virtual room.
There, I entered a code I’d been give by Lee. It quickly transported me to an outdoor rooftop bar with views of the ocean and a city skyline. It looked straight out of a mid-aughts video game. I could vaguely hear people chattering around me — a looped track that plays through the Oculus headset — and when I turned my head, I got a full view of a virtual bar where a bartender avatar made drinks.
Lee greeted me on the roof, her avatar’s long black ponytail vaguely reminiscent of the pictures of her I’d seen on Instagram. Soon after, a blond male head appeared on the seat next to me. A floating label above his head read Steve.
We said hello, and then Lee dove in to explain how to date in the VR world. She had us turn to look each other “in the eyes.” VR headsets have not developed the technology to read and display facial expressions, so I blankly stared into Steve’s slightly crooked and blank animated brown eyes in an attempt to make some sort of connection. But I felt nothing; it was just awkward.
Lee explained that the lack of facial expressions and full-body language in VR mean that we have to rely on our verbal communication. But we could also use hand gestures by putting our controllers down and moving our hands in front of the headset.
Then, Lee laid out the plan. She would feed us two questions and then disappear out of view while Steve and I talked for several minutes. And — no pressure! — it would all be recorded so that Lee could go back and critique us.
Lee’s opening questions were “What’s your favorite TV show?” and “How’s dating going for you?”
I talked about how excited I am about the final season of “Grace and Frankie.” Steve, who spoke with a deep voice that may or may not have been digitally altered, talked about his favorite anime show, which didn’t really interest me.
Then we got personal, and I found myself a little hesitant. Steve talked about how COVID, moving and his job have dampened his love life.
“Wish I had some cool stories for you,” he said. I tried to make him feel better, agreeing that it had been hard. In reality, I had tons of hilarious pandemic dating stories, but I wilted from sharing them. I worried I might scare Steve off with tales of how robust my romantic life was. I quickly changed the subject.
We went on to talk about Mike Tyson beating up a fan, Steve growing up in Michigan and my family’s love of sports. At some point we got stuck on a weird tangent talking about debutante balls, and Lee whispered in my headset that I should change the topic.
Then Lee came back on-screen and played back some of our date, critiquing us and noting when the conversation stalled and when things felt natural and easy.
Steve confessed that some of his jokes (like trying to tease me about going to my friend’s debutante ball) didn’t land and that he relied on comedy to avoid getting personal.
Lee noted that I often echoed Steve’s energy and language in a subconscious attempt to make him feel more comfortable — a good thing. But, at some points, I’d let him flounder too long on a weird topic (again, debutante balls).
Then it was time to say goodbye. I took off my headset, abruptly ending the date. It hadn’t been a romantic interlude, but it had been a learning experience.
And that is exactly Lee’s goal. She doesn’t expect people to fall in love — and doesn’t connect users afterward unless they specifically request it — but wants to help them learn how to better communicate.
I didn’t ask to see Steve — if that’s even his real name — again, or go to bed dreaming about feeling his floating avatar head. But I am looking forward to using some of what I learned in the metaverse in real life.