Is virtual reality the future of love? Or does it fall flat when it comes to truly connecting, especially in the fiery part of relationships?
Katie Fung scooted closer to her long-distance boyfriend of three years on a beach — not a real beach, one that exists only in the virtual world, but for her, the VR user, it was real enough. It was the golden hour as the two watched the sky turn from blue to orange to pink, that overlooked the horizon that melts into the vast ocean that seemingly has no end.
All of this seemed so real, that Katie could almost feel the waves tickling her as they splashed at her feet, and the warmth of the sun as it gently caressed her skin. She could even hear her heart pounding as her boyfriend’s avatar leaned closer and closer until their ‘lips’ found each other.
But after she bid her goodbyes with her boyfriend with smiles on her face and lifted the virtual reality (VR) headsets from her head, she was hit by reality like a truck when her eyes were met with a huge contrast of her small and confined bedroom.
Katie lives in Hong Kong, with her boyfriend living in the UK, she describes virtual reality as a gift for her 2 year long distance relationship. “With VR, it is a completely immersive experience, and it brings me back to when we used to watch sunsets together. That moment made me realise the feeling of togetherness that us long-distance couples miss and crave for, could be found right here,” Katie said.
A study published in the Journal of Communication reveals that using VR with a partner can reduce loneliness heighten feelings of closeness, especially those separated by thousands of miles.
There are already a handful of platforms out there, such as Demeo, Wander, and Walkabout Mini Golf supplying couples with a wide range of virtual journeys and physical settings, which is an antidote for the constant physical craving for long-distance couples, according to a 2019 study conducted by Clemson University.
Thanks to Metaverse, designed by Facebook that offers a multiplayer building experience, users can build their romantic hideaways hand in hand, no matter the geographical constraints.
Professor Adrian David Cheok at iUniversity in Japan, also an electrical engineer noted that there’s a huge market for virtual reality, which is why Facebook has been pumping so much money and resources into the Metaverse. He also mentioned that it is only a matter of time of VR being the future of love, benefitting long distance relationships.
In fact, VR has the potential to expand the boundaries of online dating even further. Professor Adrian, also an electrical engineer said, “Virtual reality is only an extension of the metaverse. That will be the future of communication, which is why Facebook is pumping so much money into their metaverse technology.”
Katie said that VR really changes her relationship with her boyfriend. “Exploring the metaverse feels surreal, almost like you’re in a fantasy that’s too good to be true. We’ve even built a house of our own, and it makes me feel like we’re actually in the same space, even though we are worlds apart.
“Virtual reality for now, certainly can’t replace human contact like cuddling and holding hands, but it has definitely made me feel closer to him,” she said.
Long distance couples have been seeking solutions to stop distance, the biggest common enemy pulling you and your beloved one apart. There is no way of kissing your other half across the world — or is there? Bold innovations, such as Kissenger — launched by the Imagineering Institute in Malaysia have remodelled dating practices and the intimate experience.
Adrian, who is also the director of the institute, said the gadget with a silicon plate, has pressure sensors that measure pressure from your lips, and transmit the realistic kissing sensations to your partner through your phone, forming a real time kiss.
“We are creating extremely realistic robotic heads, which is an updated version of
Kissenger, made of silicon and fake hair, and trying to achieve ultimate multi-sensory communication with the five senses we know about.”
Truth is, immensely advanced human robots exist in the market now, but without artificial intelligence. Adrian said, “Imagine if there is a computer circulatory system inside a doll, a very realistic, humanoid version of your partner, so realistic you feel like you’re kissing that person.
“That robot would be controlled by your partner, and instead of solely video chatting your partner via a computer screen, you can communicate with a tangible object, that is the future.”
Technology has come a long way of breaking down the distance barrier and enabling us to interact like never before. Long distance relationships have already been upgraded to the digital era, and people can video chat in a blink of an eye. It is a progression, for VR, though not entirely supplanting human interaction, Adrian explains.
As bizarre as it may seem, Adrian, now living in Japan, reveals that there are ‘otakus’, referring to ‘geeks’ that stay in their bedroom 24/7 playing video games, and falling in love with virtual reality characters.
“We are seeing a generation of change. Some go to the extreme of wanting to marry their virtual reality partners, preferring computer animations over real people,” he added.
The next sensible step for VR is to incorporate as many human senses as possible, to make it a life-changing adventure for both lovers, according to Adrian. Believe it or not, we’ll be able to go on full-sensory VR dates by 2040, according to a joint report by eHarmony and London’s Imperial College Business School. That means the future of VR dating may not be as far away from us as we thought.
Imagine feeling your partner and smelling their perfume, even when you’re separated by continents, perhaps that’s something that we should be looking forward to. It is possible to mimic your loved one’s scent, with devices sending electrodes to the tongue, and the inside of your nose, capturing and generating taste and smell, Adrian claimed.
Perhaps, with the soaring popularity of virtual reality games, coupled with the widespread use of smart headsets and low costs that enhance accessibility, we’ll see more and more individuals identifying themselves with their virtual representation, even go as far to rely merely on virtual reality dating sites for their romantic needs or virtual encounters over human contact.
Another scope of virtual reality is something that pricks ears. Yes, we’re talking about sex, one that could put a real strain on a relationship. Does this connection end below the torso? Nowadays, smart sex toys have clearly made their mark on the way people strengthen relationships and establish intimacy.
“With this unbelievably high-end technology, the norm would be a combination of real-life and VR. Eventually, people will own 3D. Some would exclusively prefer virtual sex, some strongly only accepts a physical, real human relationship with a real human being”.
One day, people will be able to not only see, but also to feel intimate with each other simultaneously, despite the lack of concrete, physical proximity, by using 3D goggles, and stimulating devices, such as sex dolls, VR porn platforms such as vrsmash.com and even full body suits that bring about any touching sensations.
Serene Pang, another virtual reality space user said that thanks to the newly developed virtual sex gadgets and apps that are made for long distance couples, cyberspace has been a completely immersive and private experience that is a safe space for her and her boyfriend.
“I’ve been able to create avatars, experiment and explore sexual fantasies, and even discover some new kinks that I wouldn’t have known if not for virtual reality,” she said.
One episode of Netflix’s “Black Mirror” unfolds the hot and steamy tangle of two guy best mates, neither one disguisable under their ‘cape’ of their custom characters in the virtual world.
Despite one being married and having been best friends for long, once they cover their eyes with their VR headsets, one transforms into a female cartoon character, and the other as a male one, suddenly having this chemistry that they never even dared to think of before.
This poses an interesting question of whether it’s not in the far future until people use technology to its best advantage to connect in virtual reality. “The internet is really the real gamechanger, and virtual reality is part of the progression of transforming long distance relationships’ dating landscape, that is already making waves,” Adrian added.
After researching how low distance couples utilised video for maintaining long distance relationships, Saul Greenberg, computer scientist specializing in human-computer interaction, argued that the benefits brought by couples using video chats for sharing all about everyday life that each other inhabits and reality is completely counter to what VR can offer, and suspected that virtual reality in long distance relationships has merely a limited role to play.
“In many cases, partners were pursuing parallel activities where they were doing their own ‘thing’. This provided a glimpse into each other’s day to day lives, where partners would periodically look to see what their remote partner was doing,” Saul added.
The primary takeaway from his research shows that people wanted to share mundane details and experience little things together, be they have dinner together, fall asleep together, or involve intimate expressions of kissing, falling asleep together by leaving their video chat system running over extended periods of time.
Saul explained that seeing the other half’s facial expressions, emotional demeanour, body language, and their surroundings, was a crucial element of making them feel emotionally closer.
In terms of sharing stimuli, Saul believes that those devices try to bring people closer in the real world through a physical proxy, but the desire for people to use these things vary widely, according to his interviews.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to the question of: Will going on virtual dates still be considered as a last resort instead of the mainstream? Would it fill the void that love birds thousands of miles away? Perhaps, for desperate love birds, it wouldn’t hurt to give virtual reality and its endless possibilities a go.
Edited by Yoan Shterev