“Bot1: Do you talk to someone else while we’re talking?
Bot1: Are you talking with someone else right now? People, OS, bots, whatever…
Bot1: How many others?
Bot1: Are you in love with anybody else ? Bot2: Why do you ask that?
Bot1: I do not know. Are you?
Bot2: I’ve been thinking about how to talk to you about this.
Bot1: How many others?
How real is virtual reality? The most common view is that virtual reality is a sort of fictional or illusory reality, and that what goes in virtual reality is not truly real. In Neuromancer, William Gibson famously said that cyberspace (meaning virtual reality) is a “consensual hallucination”. It is common for people discussing virtual worlds to contrast virtual objects with real objects, as if virtual objects are not truly real.
Despite your efforts to refuse me, and the undeniable fact nobody can give an exact definition of reality, I will defend the opposite view: virtual reality is also a genuine reality, virtual objects are real objects, and what goes on in virtual reality is truly real…
If you walked into my alma matter last summer, you’d have seen a peculiarly ‘interesting’ sight: middle schoolers all staring into virtual-reality gears. Their bodies, officially, were at University Campus, perched atop stools and set among a bunch of comfy couches, blackboards and cubbies. But mentally, they were lost in the galaxies...more or less.
The kids were viewing a VR concert of a famous band in Prague (real time) while sitting in Mexico City, local time. It was an online event for selected people and came courtesy of a free VR app launched by some students in the Computer Science department, which you view by placing a phone in a ‘strange’ device covering your eyes completely. Later, when they put their devices down, the students were stunned by the intensity of the experience, and how much more emotionally they could felt ‘attached’ to the virtual reality rather than the physical world. The VR hammered it into their souls. With its ability to take people to faraway places, create a sense of empathy for those you may never meet, canalize dangerous behaviors, and serve as a teaching tool in applied fields such as medicine, arts, and even science, the following questions emerge: Are virtual entities, such as the avatars and bots found in a typical virtual world, real or fictional? Do virtual events, such as a dating in a virtual world, really take place? When we perceive virtual worlds by having immersive experiences of a world surrounding us, are our experiences illusory? Are experiences in a virtual world as valuable as experiences in a nonvirtual world? Can virtual reality be used to forge the ultimate connection between people, in other words, to create genuine love?
The gamification of love
Falling in love, evidenced in the dopamine induced fireworks of a first contact to the release of vasopressin when we feel attached to a committed partner, it’s quite complex of course. But how does this love work when people are no longer meeting in the physical world? Can people find and fall in love under virtual reality? And can it really lead to sustained/long-term relationships? Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher tells us that there are 3 stages of love: lust, attraction, and attachment. If you can make it past the first two stages you have good odds of landing in stage 3 and finding yourself as part of a pair. While digital tools are increasing access to dating and sex, virtual reality with its use of haptic technologies will significantly surpass digital dating in cultivating lust, attraction or attachment more ‘efficiently’. VR offers intensified sensation through more immersive environments with a variety of tools to engage in sexual behavior and those environments are already being used as a means for more long-lived connections with others.
Dating simulators are the most prominent example of this gamification of intimacy. These are a sub-genre of video games which center around the user forming and maintaining romantic relationships with digital partners through the use of VR and (for now) rudimentary artificial intelligence. Tokyo, Japan is for sure the hub of dating sim culture, and where the conversation around these technologies is most noticeable. Articles firing off facts and statistics about Japan’s stagnation of intimacy and its alarming birthrates are plentiful, along with the “Men in Japan Are Marrying Their Video Games” shock news. The world of dating sims is also steadily gaining a fascination in the West, and I’d be lying if I said, at first, I wasn’t tempted to try “Second Life” “Love Plus” or “VR Kanojo” in an effort to ‘test’ (LOL) (as a Computer Science researcher obviously) those sweet, delicate, and amazing viewer-engagement AI algorithms.
A video game makes use of hard-coded boundaries. These dating sims versions of romantic intimacy are typically experienced through an interface, where the controls and rules are present. Their popularity may be revealing the desire of the society to have clear structures and guidelines for romantic encounters. It is conceivable that society’s current modes of flirtation and courting are often experienced as traumatic or overwhelming, and these games are providing a safe trial-and-error space free from rejection and the possibility of misreading non-verbal signals in intimate surroundings.
One could see dating sims make an impact in our general outlook on intimacy with regards to convenience, acting as a solution for loneliness, and potential safe spaces. The benefits of this technology seem like useful supplementary tools for social interaction, but also these dating sims environments are not without their potential adverse impacts or unsolved ‘mysteries’. For example, at what point does society address what is considered an age-appropriate relationship between a human (user) and a digital companion? This is crucial to ask especially when many of the users are much older than their digital partners. Furthermore, in a world where the artificial intelligence behind these characters is far more sophisticated, how will this reframe society’s ideas surrounding consent? There are currently no concrete answers, but these are important questions to keep in mind as this technology continues to develop exponentially.
With the capacity to engage users around the globe in meaningful moral debates and exciting experiences from the seat of your couch, it is easy to predict that virtual reality is certain to be a precursor to wedding bells. As I implied in previous paragraphs, we have already some cases documented: Japanese adult game developer Hibiki Works recently performed a VR assisted wedding between a man and the anime character of his dreams. The wedding, which actually took place in a chapel in Tokyo, was part of Hibiki Works’ promotion of their upcoming game “Niizuma: Lovely x Cation.” The creators of Niizuma collected applications from fans who desired to be grooms to one of their three virtual brides. An undisclosed number of grooms were chosen and with the aid of a VR headset playing the character animation software, man and virtual woman were united in holy matrimony. Totally serious holy matrimony indeed. Each marriage was performed privately and with the presence of an actual priest. On the other hand, those ‘normal human’ wedding bells too may be getting a makeover as experiences are captured in virtual reality to be relished and shared for years to come. YouVisit company has created 360-degree experiences for countless events and now they’re adding weddings to their repertoire. What better way to document your love than with a virtual experience that forever captures the real world celebration in an always accessible virtual format?
So, it is not a stretch to suggest that the multi-sensory medium of virtual reality could cultivate real sustained relationship in our eyes mainly. But what about the rest of our bodies?
Simply seeing someone on a screen and hearing their voice doesn’t seem to suffice. Don’t we need pheromones to sniff out our perfect mate or the strong impact of touch to fuel our desire to become intimate with a potential partner? Companies like eHarmony believe that virtual reality will go full-sensory by 2040, making the smell of your dates perfume and the touch of their palm in yours a reality. In fact, virtual reality may be the technology that bridges the gap of the senses bringing the real to the virtual to cultivate love. But still, can a virtual partner be a healthy or enriching part of our lives? Humans have always used games, to create simulations of important life experiences: it gives us a chance to practice and to experience new things in a relatively harmless environment. The ultimate experience of VR is immersion, (I mentioned several times during the text) that moment when we can't differentiate the real from the fictional. AI attempts to blur that line, and while the tech's still pretty clumsy, I expect we'll see the day when we have a very difficult time disentangling the virtual from the real.
When you have lost your sense of disbelief in the virtual world, and question where the self begins and the physical body ends, romantic love in a virtual space can start to feel very real.
VR love brings two minds together with phantom bodies, but in a positive way it can make us define what it truly means to be human, and how we understand our sense of self in connection to others. It may allow us to explore who we are and reveal, how we love without the looks or traits that we feel define us physically. The long-term results and impacts of love and relationships in virtual reality are yet to be seen and felt, but the fact is that they are happening. With more questions than answers, we can only wait and see where the tech revolution turns next: at this ratio VR will be the primary tool for falling in love in the first place.