When I first heard about virtual reality, I had one thought before any other: this, finally, is the technology to bridge gaps between people across the world. I'll be able to watch movies side-by-side with friends in distant countries, or maybe even get to go on a date with a long-distance beau.
Since then, I've realised how naive I was, because although there are a multitude of games dedicated to brilliant vistas, sci-fi worlds and trippy kaleidoscopic experiences, the rest are focused on either anxiety-inducing horror, or porn aimed at heterosexual men - making it unlikely that I'll own a headset for the time being.
Which makes sense, of course: both produce sensations which are amplified by the visceral proximity afforded to the player (or viewer) by VR. Why watch third-person porn when you can be the active participant? Why limit yourself to being scared by what's happening to other people when you can tap into your own body's instinctive reactions to real-life horror?
Yet, it seems like the social aspect of VR isn't being spurred along as much as it should be, and that's a shame when we consider the possibilities of this technology for the human connection. Or to put it more cynically: perhaps there's not as much money in VR dating.
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Or maybe it's because the technology for real-time animation, character interaction, and realistic portrayal of people is… not quite there yet. Perhaps the best place to see where the tech is at is with VR dating reality show, Virtually Dating, made as part of a partnership between Conde Nast Entertainment and Facebook.
In Virtually Dating, two strangers meet for the first time in a virtual world, both wearing VR headsets and various motion-tracking body gear. Presumably because the gear needed to track their facial movements would be prohibitively expensive, the pair are 3D body-scanned and then presented to each other as frozen-faced, grinning marionettes; most of the date is spent admiring the broken physics and body modelling rather than actual small talk.
Most of the date is spent admiring the broken physics and body modelling rather than actual small talk
But despite the technological limitations, there's something beautiful about the date as it starts to play out. The two people are, at least according to their self-descriptions, pretty dull; the kind of people that you'd swipe left on some human carousel because their profiles listed them as liking "white wine and travelling" and all their photos were of them on holiday holding a cocktail inside a coconut (in a later episode, the woman asks for "somebody with a job" and the man asks for "a good girl who makes me feel like a man" and then quotes Scary Movie). And yet, because VR is still exciting and novel, and also because it's incredibly imperfect, it makes for a much more interesting date than the usual.
The pair dance on the moon, build a spaceship around each other, and do the YMCA as a cactus and a skeleton. There is, surprisingly, very little awkwardness, especially when it comes to physical touching, although there is a lot of awkwardness in trying to figure out exactly where the other person's hand is (clue: it's probably not actually sticking out of their stomach like it is in VR). They even agree to a second date, which either says something about the success of VR dating or about how desperately awful the dating scene is in New York.
Could Virtually Dating be seen as a VR success story? Perhaps. But it's being used as an augment to real-life dating, with two people in the same room, rather than making it possible to date, or spend time with, someone far away - or even someone who doesn't exist at all.
VR getting married in the morning
With Niitzuma Lovelyxcation, Japanese grooms have been offered the chance to marry their favourite anime character with a real-life wedding ceremony, where only the groom - wearing a VR headset - can see the bride. It's not hard to see the potential application of this, like being able to marry someone while they're abroad on military service, for example, or just being able to spend time with a virtual partner that can take on the appearance of someone from your favourite TV show or movie.
There's also VR Kanojo, a game that gives you a "girlfriend" that you hang out with, staying mostly motionless while she parades around, occasionally giving you choices like whether or not you want to look up her skirt. But despite sounding a little voyeuristic, VR Kanojo reveals itself to be quite sweet - or, at least, as sweet as you want it to be, given that you can dress your girlfriend up in cute outfits or just have her hang out naked and have lots and lots of sex. Perhaps owing to the fact that the game has impressively good graphics, it really feels like you're just hanging out with your girlfriend, albeit a girlfriend that's incredibly coy about everything.
But that's where the technology also starts to get a little sinister. If you can create any character, who's to say that people won't eventually try to create the likeness of someone who didn't consent? Just as with the ethical arguments around DeepFake porn, which superimposes faces onto porn star bodies, it gets incredibly creepy to think that VR might make it possible to pretend that your ex is still your girlfriend.
But VR isn't just for single people on the prowl. It's also a tool that makes it possible to spend time - even sexy time - with the partner you already have. While most of the technologies already mentioned have a long way to go until they're realistic, tech-enabled sex is developing rapidly and can already be found in bedrooms across the world.
Teledildonics is what makes long-distance sex possible: sex toys, from dildos to vibrators to fleshlights, that can be controlled through the internet. That means toys with variable speeds, depths and grips, that - let's be honest - are much, much better than real-life sex in many ways. There's no substitute for skin-on-skin contact, of course, but that's where VR comes in.
Your brain expects to feel something when you go to kiss someone or hold their hand, and instead you feel nothing
Unfortunately, like the porn industry in general, it's pretty much only aimed at men for the time being. Even the most cursory glance at Pornhub or Redtube will reveal that almost all of the available VR videos will grant the viewer a penis. One of the pros (and cons) of VR is that it feels incredibly real, to the point where even sexual assault in VR can be upsettingly realistic, so to look down at your body only to see something unexpected can be disturbing. VR porn for women can be just as disturbing, though - the combination of VR and live video means that the viewer is unable to move for the entire time, and while that may be just what some are looking for, for others it's immensely triggering.
Be my virtual valentine
But beyond dating and mating, is it possible to actually fall in love through VR? Before VR, people fell in love through chat rooms; before that, through letters; before that, through paintings, and so on and so on until the beginning of time, when presumably cavemen told each other stories of the dreamy cavewomen in the village down the road. So why not VR, too?
Using the pseudo-psychological "36 Questions to Fall in Love", which psychologist and question-master Arthur Aron claims can make two complete strangers fall in love (through sheer awkwardness), Oculus game Fall In Love aims to do exactly that.
"This project is all about creating intimacy," says Executive Producer Julia Sourikoff, although much of this is achieved through the questions themselves, which ask you to reveal your most embarrassing moment, personal problems and even the reason why you last cried. The director, Kevin Cornish, sees Fall In Love as the next logical progression in socialisation: "This was a chance to do something where we could create a whole new type of human connection."
It helps that the VR dates on the other side of the table are exceptionally attractive, and very good actors, but still, a point is made
It certainly helps that the VR dates on the other side of the table are exceptionally attractive, and very good actors, but still, a point is made: VR enables intimacy like no other social platform is able to. Unlike Skype, there's a proximity in VR that, even though it's not real, can trick our brains into feeling like it is.
We may still be held back by much of VR technology, from the bulky, heavy headsets to the need for large swathes of space if you actually want to move around. Then there's the added difficulty of touch: your brain expects to feel something when you go to kiss someone or hold their hand, and instead you feel nothing, like the feeling of your foot falling through air when you thought there was one more stair.
Likewise, the restriction on movement in VR is necessary: "When designing any VR game or experience, you need to take into account the fact that basic movement is enough to make many users nauseous," says Gene Herrschaft, a University of Maine student working on a social VR project called 'Facilitating Meaningful Personal Interconnections Through A Virtual Space'. However, the solution to have the actor and player remain still at all times means that the player can be left feeling passive and unable to act as they normally would.
But despite the technological setbacks of VR, it's still so many steps forward from the intimacy of text chat. "Spending time with another person in VR doesn't feel 'less than' spending time with them in person," says Herrschaft. "In my experience, I've felt just as comfortable sharing more personal thoughts through VR as I have in person, at least to people I already know."
In my experience, I've felt just as comfortable sharing more personal thoughts through VR as I have in person
We're a long way past the days of falling in love through paintings and letters and cybersex on chat rooms. It seems at least somewhat likely that VR can help more than hinder when it comes to meeting new people and potentially falling in love. If VR technology can progress to the point where human facial expressions can be accurately simulated, we might be able to use it as more than just a novelty. Eye tracking alone would do much to mimic a more realistic experience, and that's almost here.
"VR already excels in natural, intuitive interaction," Herrschaft admits, "and being able to read emotion off of other people's faces could be a really great extension of that. This has strong potential to turn out goofy at first, but VR tech is developing rapidly, and it can't be great if it isn't bad first."