A lump formed in my throat as my Oculus Quest 2 headset catapulted me into my first VRChat room — a bizarre social space where VR and PC users can mingle and be weird together. Before the simulated environment could fully load, I heard someone call out my username. Excited to have my first conversation, I opened my mouth to salute him — ‘til the greeter’s lewd gestures stopped me mid-hello.
“Eek!” I said as I sprinted away from the X-rated robot avatar. Insulted by my sudden departure, the VR character hurled curse words at me in his pre-pubescent voice. “Erm, either that ‘adult’ has a high-pitched voice or a 12-year-old just called me the B-word!” I said in disbelief. “Welcome to VRChat,” a cackling Spongebob avatar told me, clearly hearing the words I thought I muttered to myself.
I darted out of VRChat and joined another simulated social environment: Echo VR. Echo VR is a community of VR athletes who play zero-gravity soccer, but instead of a soccer ball, they use a frisbee. There is a social lobby where you can meet other VR athletes, so I thought it’d be a place where I can finally make a genuine connection.
While I was playing with a frisbee that was free-floating in the lobby, another VR athlete swooped in to grab the disc. “How nice!” I thought to myself. “Someone wants to play with me.” Instead, the demonic athlete took advantage of a gnarly Echo VR bug by stuffing my frisbee inside a glitchy beam known for “eating” items, making it impossible for me to retrieve the disc. The cruel character drifted away while yelling “Haha!” à la Nelson Muntz, leaving me with my head hanging low.
The VR social world is filled with bullies, trolls and cliques, reminding me of my traumatic grade-school days of being invisible as a potential friend, but visible as being a human punching bag. But make no mistake — this isn’t a “boo-hoo, I’m a leper in VR” sob story. Au contraire! I’m simply painting a picture of the treacherous terrain I faced while trying to fulfill a challenge I was determined to accomplish: finding love in VR.
The quest to find love via Quest 2 was questionable
Laptop Mag Editor-in-chief Sherri L. Smith recalled a fascinating article she read about a VR user who went on a date in a simulated world. She asked the team whether anyone was up for the challenge of replicating this experience. I volunteered to take on the challenge because why the hell not? How difficult could it be to find a date in VR, right?
The first roadblock was that VR has zero dedicated dating apps — not even one! I scrolled through the Oculus Quest App Store expecting to see some variation of Tinder VR, but instead, I was met with tumbleweeds and crickets. (VR devs, if you’re reading this, there’s a gap in the market!) I even asked the r/OculusQuest2, r/VRGaming and r/Oculus subreddits for VR dating app recommendations, but they all confirmed there aren’t any. However, many Redditors mentioned social apps such as VRChat as a way to meet potential love interests. Not all were on board with the VRChat suggestion, though.
“VRChat will have you chatting to lovely girls named Keith,” one joked. “If you thought catfishing was bad in real dating apps, try using avatars!” another chimed in.
As per the introduction, my VRChat experience stunk. When I chose feminine avatars, I was swarmed with creeps — the uncomfortable interactions felt just as awful as rejection.
No one likes to be a piece of VR meat! When I opted for androgynous avatars, I was relieved to be left alone, but I found that making friends — nevermind finding a date — was difficult.
The more time I spent in VRChat, the more I understood why many seasoned users preferred to stay within their cliques — after all, the place is infested with assholes. When you finally find a friendly VRChat crew, you instinctively want to protect the group from toxic infiltrators who could potentially ruin your experience, thus making you wary of newcomers. On top of that, VRChat has a color-coded trust-rank system: new users are blue while veteran users are purple. Some use this trust-rank system to implement a pecking order within VRChat — blue users are lowly peasants and purple users are royal snobs. As you may have guessed, it wasn’t easy for a lowly peasant like me to make new friends.
Feeling ignored and marginalized after spending a few days on VRChat, I moved my mission to Rec Room, another VR social app. After checking out the Among Us area in Rec Room, I quickly realized the app is filled with snot-nosed children. “Why the hell are you calling an emergency meeting? The game just started, bro!” a little boy yelled. Rolling my eyes, I dashed out of there and checked out other social arenas such as Echo VR and Facebook Venues, but had zero luck.
Finally, I tried AltSpaceVR.
My amazing art date at AltSpaceVR
AltSpaceVR is a social VR world with a cartoonish, playful vibe — all avatars have the same doe-eyed, baby-faced appearance.
Feeling like a popped balloon after facing relentless rejection on VRChat, Echo VR, Facebook Venues and more, I had zero faith in AltSpaceVR. The only reason I signed up for the app is because I wanted to try out a platform that regularly hosts events for VR users.
It’s true what they say, though: You’ll find love when you’re not looking for it.
I attended an AltSpaceVR event called “2020 PhotoNOLA PhotoWalk,” an exhibition that displays artsy collections with a New Orleans connection. I teleported myself to the virtual art gallery and was immediately drawn to a huge, floor-to-ceiling painting that depicted a soldier climbing out of a window to hand another fellow soldier a TV set.
I wasn’t the only one who was drawn to the eye-catching piece — a Homer Simpson-complected avatar with cool hair, a dapper vest and black-painted nails stood beside me to examine the alluring artwork.
“What do you think this art is trying to convey?” I asked the stranger. “Hm,” he said thoughtfully. “You first.”
Thinking this was an early 20th-century painting, I joked that TVs and radios were scarce back then and these guys were stealing electronics to resell them. He laughed heartily and said, “Well, that’s an interesting perspective. Personally, I think this painting is about how we use TVs to invade households to recruit young men into the military. In a sense, we’re ‘stealing’ people’s TVs to infiltrate youngsters’ minds.”
His answer was profound, but as it turned out, we were both wrong. This is a popular 2008 Banksy mural that appeared on the side of a building in New Orleans, calling out the military’s disheartening response to Hurricane Katrina.
“I’m Brad, by the way,” the avatar said, extending a hand. “I’m Kim!” I said. I tried to shake his hand, but instead, our hands merged into each other as if we were both ghosts. This is the downside of social VR — there’s not much touching you can do. Perhaps future VR headset peripherals can include haptics to make social interactions more true-to-life.
We moved on to a portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a Brooklyn-based graffiti prodigy. “What about this one?” I asked. “What message do you think this artist is hoping to convey?”
“You first!” He said. “Like last time.” I rolled my eyes, but I obliged. “Give me a minute or two,” I said as I tried to make out the illegible scribbles sprawled across the painting. “What’s interesting here is the contrast between Basquiat’s composed facial expression and the scratchy, wild, disconnected words that surround him. This painting is about having inner rage, but he’s unsure how to articulate it, so he stays silent. However, his aura of fury still lingers.”
“From my point of view, I think this artwork is about oppression,” Brad said. “If you take a look at the dark-purple areas of his face, he appears to be bruised and beat up.” “Ooh! I love that!” I exclaimed. “I mean, I don’t love that he’s beaten up, but I love your perspective.”
Brad chuckled. “I also sense the graffiti-like scribbles are a nod to the chaotic neighborhood that he may have grown up in.” I was so impressed with Brad’s analysis of the painting, I started to feel a few butterflies in my stomach — intellectual conversationalists are hot.
Running out of conversation-stimulating artwork to analyze, we redirected the conversation to ourselves. Brad is a 33-year-old British Columbian native who’s been teaching yoga for two years. We discovered that we had shared interests, including old-school Eminem, Beat Saber and mindfulness.
We laughed as Canadian Brad’s hands often danced off-kilter from his avatar body. “It must be a frequency issue,” Brad said. “When I first used the Quest, it operated so smoothly, but ever since the Quest 2 came out, I’ve been noticing some strange behavior from my headset. This is planned obsolescence!” he said in an irked tone. “Oh, sorry! I don’t want to bore you with tech stuff.”
“Are you kidding?” I said. “I’m a tech journalist. It’s impossible to bore me with tech stuff.” Although I couldn’t see the real Brad, I could tell his eyes suddenly lit up. Growing more comfortable with each other, we began flirting and bantering for almost two hours. We also dove into a fascinating conversation about the latest tech — until Canadian Brad had an issue with his microphone and I could no longer hear him.
Though he couldn’t speak, Canadian Brad’s gestures seem to say, “See? Planned obsolescence!” I laughed and I told him that I had to go — it was getting late. He waved goodbye and I left the AltSpaceVR app. I took off my Oculus Quest 2 headset and whispered “Wow,” feeling awe-struck after the experience. I’d love to meet Canadian Brad one day. Even if nothing comes of it, Canadian Brad would make an incredible friend.
I had an incredible time meeting Canadian Brad, but would I recommend VR dating? Not yet. As mentioned, it’s 2020 and there are still no dedicated apps for virtual-reality dating. Sure there are social VR platforms and there is a small chance that you could potentially meet a love interest, but don’t hold your breath. You’re more likely to meet trolls and bullies — not your next girlfriend.
It also goes without saying that social VR is a catfish haven. You thought Tinder was bad? Social VR takes the cake! It’s unsettling that you don’t know who is hiding behind the avatar — you also don’t know what they look like. Canadian Brad sounded like a 33-year-old man from British Columbia, but who knows? “Brad” could have been a 56-year-old cannibal from Florida seeking some companionship on AltSpaceVR.
To optimize the VR dating experience, I’d love to see some haptic feedback. For example, as my date touches my arm while fake laughing at my corny jokes, it’d be nice to feel some sort of sensation. I know some may believe that the following suggestion defeats the purpose of VR dating (many prefer the anonymity of avatars and love the idea of hiding behind a character), but personally, I like to know who I’m talking to and what they look like. If future VR dating apps could let users see its members’ real pictures (verified through an eagle-eyed vetting process), I’d totally be down for VR dating. Otherwise, like the Redditor said, you’ll end up dating a bunch of Keiths masquerading as women.
One page from AltSpaceVR’s book that future VR dating apps can take is the concept of VR events. The fact that I was able to roam around a virtual art gallery and analyze the works of famous artists blew my mind and, quite frankly, topped all the sit-at-a-restaurant-and-eat dates I’ve had.
VR dating is still in its nascent stages and you may scoff at such a preposterous idea, but with our pandemic-ravaged world affecting real-life social interactions, don’t be too quick to write it off.