Could the rise of VR dating platforms remedy the woes of finding love today?

Virtual reality (VR) has touched many aspects of modern life – and that includes dating. Its rise has added new layers of interactivity to existing online dating platforms, whether they be websites, mobile apps, online communities, forums, or online games, by allowing the creation of personal online virtual avatars (i.e. characters in perceived 3D space). Avatars can look and dress how users want, as well as meet and explore a plethora of digital spaces like virtual restaurants, concert venues, or hypothetical cities together, no matter where they are in the world. What’s more, by attaching sensors to the body like a headset with a screen or handheld electronic controllers, users can interact in more tactile ways and feel physically present in virtual space. According to ‘The Future 100’ 2023 trend report by Wunderman Thompson, VR holds the potential to become ‘the next dominant force in matchmaking’.

A nation of hesitation

Opinium surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,000 UK adults, of whom 41% are already married and 22% are in monogamous relationships, while 28% are single and 9% claim to either be in situationships (a casual or undefined relationship), non-monogamous relationships, or something else. Initial perceptions of VR dating lean negative amongst the population: around three in five think that VR doesn’t set you up for realistic romantic relationships (60%), that too much technology isn’t healthy for love (59%), and that VR can skew expectations of experiences and people, leading to disappointment off-platform (58%). While Brits agree that VR can facilitate new and exciting experiences (34%), this seems general and hard to dispute given the relative novelty of the technology.

Reasons to doubt the genre of online dating differ across generations. Boomers and the eldest of Gen X (55+) hold the most concern around online safety, specifically online predators (50%), catfishing/false profiles (43%), and data security (31%), which bars them from dipping their toes in in the first place. Elder Millennials and the younger end of Gen X (35-54s) are significantly more likely to have had negative past experiences (24%), to find it too expensive (17%), or think it’s too complicated (12%), which suggests many have tried and been burned. Gen Z/younger Millennials (18-34s) are much more burdened by platforms being too time-consuming (16%), tiring (15%), and requiring they make too many decisions (9%).

However, one fifth (21%) of 18-34s see no reason to avoid online dating compared to around one in ten middle-aged or older people (11% and 10% respectively). These generational divides also reveal levels of tech adoption – the eldest largely stay out of it, the middle-aged sit in the stands, and the youth stand in the ring. For the latter, these technologies simply are the present, with time poverty and decision-fatigue as symptoms of the times.

Problems and promises

VR dating platforms tout new angles to tackle the search for love. A platform like Flirtual is authenticity-oriented, with a focus on highlighting true personality and encouraging the transition to real-world meetups. VRChat and Rec Room promote community through virtual events and collaborative world-building. Nevermet focuses on novelty with an emphasis on ‘magical’ and ‘one of a kind’ experiences in the metaverse. Planet Theta pairs authenticity with an element of safety by facilitating ‘micro-dates’ that can be lengthened if both parties want to talk further. These options fall in line with upsides more likely endorsed by 18-34s, such as being a good solution for long-distance romance (44%), helping people see each other beyond physical attributes (43%), and easing the burden of expressing themselves authentically (39%).

That being said, there’s still more that needs to be acknowledged – the needs of younger generations appear to be getting more specific. If tasked to design their own virtual avatars, 18-34s are far more likely to place importance on factors like personal style (21%), communication style (14%), cultural background (13%), connection to family (12%), and career achievements (11%), compared to those aged 35-54 who are most likely to prioritise less immediately tangible factors like personality and humour (40% on average). While the concept of a new dating realm could be enticing, could the increasingly specific needs of younger generations complicate the already-complex matter of finding love?

Youths drive optimism behind the technology because living in technology is their baseline. It may perhaps be foolish for platforms to ignore the discomforts more readily felt by them than their elders – the mere exhaustion of choice.

Written by Ailene Lung, Researcher at Opinium