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Monday, August 24, 2009

Avatar Dating -- A Reality of Sorts

Here is something relatively new for you single blog readers. Have you gone on a virtual date yet? Omni Date.com, a Toronto-based company, provides a virtual world for online dating as a way to meet people online in hopes of finding love. A growing number of people are exploring virtual worlds through three-dimensional avatars while weeding out other daters until they find someone with the potential for a real-world rendezvous. Paula Weiss, a 42-year-old single mother of two, meets her virtual dates at the Millennium bar, where they talk and enjoy a glass of wine together. "As a mom, I don't have time to fix myself up to go out on dates," says Weisz, a marketing manager from Toronto. "I can just get online from home and feel like I'm on a real date – without wasting time or spending any money." She typically has one date per week on the service without leaving the comfort of her living room sofa. She has gone on many virtual dates, which resulted in real-world dates with two men, one of whom she is still dating. (Vidya Rao, theStar.com, May 3 2008) Advocates say virtual dating is the next step in the $800 million online dating industry, filling the gap between the static world of online dating – emailing, chatting or just viewing profiles – and face-to-face real-world interaction. Ravit Abelman and her husband Igor Kotlyar founded both the OmniDate.com beta site, which is free, and the OmniDate program. "People can move from the online world into the real world and not be strangers," she says. Abelman and Kotlyar say theirs is the largest site created specifically for virtual dating, with about 4,400 members. Social networking sites like Cyworld.com have grown in popularity as ways to meet friends, and, more recently, to meet dates. Second Life, not a website but an online virtual dating program, claims 13 million members. Members of OmniDate can choose dates such as touring a museum gallery, going to a bar or a beach, and listening to the user's choice of music in a lounge. The avatars are created to interact and to express emotion. Typing in "LOL," for example, makes an avatar giggle. Avatars can also blow kisses, hold hands, yawn and even roll their eyes to let the person on the other side of the screen know exactly how much the user is – or isn't – enjoying the date. Also, to facilitate conversation, the virtual world in which the dates occur is filled with pop-ups of icebreaker games which, according to users, take the pressure off having to figure out what to say. Michael Horton and Jeana Frost at the at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used special software to test the effect that virtual dating had on subsequent in-person dates. They found (2006) that people who interacted with each other in the virtual world through avatars had better chemistry in face-to-face meetings than people who had only viewed profiles. Frost, who co-authored the study as part of her doctoral dissertation, added, "... virtual dating forces people, albeit through their avatars, to react to what's happening around them, similar to a real date, and people can get to know each other in a more in-depth way." However, according to Julie Albright, a lecturer at the University of Southern California's sociology department and an expert on online dating, the avatars may be idealized images of beauty. The use of avatars does not encourage people to have realistic expectations. People may be disappointed in their real-life meetings. Now, University of Michigan research reports a whole economy has sprung up where enterprising residents create add-ons that people can use to customise an avatar. Eye color, clothes, shoes, hairstyles, accessories, even pets are available. Avatars can even chat in 3D. Tom Hale, Linden Lab's chief product officer, floated the following idea:

"Linden Lab also plans to introduce more services, and to integrate with other popular social networks and online services, further associating the avatar with the person’s real identity.

Joe Paradiso, is spear-heading a project part funded by Second Life's creator Linden Lab, that looks to create a kind of 'wormhole' between virtual and real environments.

From an article in Forbes about the project:

"According to Paradiso's plan, anyone in the (MIT media lab) building wearing a small electronic badge can walk up to one of the small screens and peer into a landscape in Second Life and communicate with users. Second Life users will likewise use the screens to look into the real world through floating windows in the virtual world, watching passersby or even remotely sitting in on meetings."

"These devices are designed to be like wormholes that let you tunnel through to a second reality," says Paradiso. "Second Life is detached. We're tying it into the real world." ("Virtual Worlds -- A Dose of Reality," www.thisisherd.com/2008/11)

Images from www.imvu.com.
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