All my time spent in headsets and exploring virtual worlds doesn’t give me a lot of time to date these days. So I was delighted to find an invitation to a VR-powered Valentine’s Day party by “exclusive” dating app The League in my inbox last week. Launched in 2015 and modeled after private members only clubs like Soho House, The League is known for its selective admissions based mode that is geared towards “high-achieving” users. In other words, attractive, good educational backgrounds and prestigious jobs. They’ve been scrutinized for this elitism in the past, but their numbers are growing. The League operates on iOS and Android in SF, NYC, Chicago, Boston, DC and my home city of LA.
I’ve been in a committed relationship with moderately-priced red wine and Postmates for a long time now — was it time to actually meet a real person? I decided to find out.
I arrived at the party (held at the swanky-slutty W Hotel in Los Angeles) and was struck by how physical everyone was. My avatar is a fuzzy blue bunny, but I opted for a red dress. (Because, you know, SOCIETY.) A girl with more eye-glitter than a middle-schooler checked me in and handed me a circular drink ticket. On the ticket was a printed maze, a la HBO’s WESTWORLD, with a martini in the center. I decided to follow the map to drunkenness.
The party was in full swing –there were at least 300 people gathered in the lounge area. The event organizers had ensured an even ratio of 50/50 male female — the average age of the attendees was early 30’s, and physically everyone looked well put together. The most unique part, of course, was that everyone was single.
I began chatting to two women sipping wine at the bar: “So, are you two having fun?” “We need to be drunker,” one answered solemnly. I nodded knowingly.
I spotted a cute guy ordering a beer and decided to make my move. “I like the shape of your beard!” I said and tried to smile seductively. “What?!” He shouted over the thumping early 2000’s hip-hop. “Your beard shape. Is good!” “Um, thanks,” he said and walked away awkwardly. Oh yeah, this was going well.
In the corner of the lounge was an Oculus Rift with touch controllers and a large monitor. Behind it was the typical long line one expects for VR installations at parties. Most of the people in line had never tried VR before and were excited to blend the world of high tech and dating.
In the VR experience, which was simple yet effective, you are matched with a player in another room who is also wearing a headset for a game of tennis. You can speak to your opponent as you lob the ball back and forth. As opposed to swiping and texting, this was a fun new way to interact with a potential love interest. Once you remove the headsets, you are allowed to see, meet, and debrief with your “match” in person.
Given my desire to be objective (and my superior VR gameplay skills) I chose to play with The League’s City Manager & Product Specialist Luke Therien.
After politely kicking his ass in VR tennis, we debriefed after over a cocktail. I asked him about the differences between the sexes in their approach to online dating.
“It becomes a profile arms race… girls typically have a much better arsenal of pictures than guys do… guys typically don’t take a lot of pictures.”
In fact, in general, “Guys tend to underperform on online dating.” In other words, a man is more likely to be interesting and attractive in person, while a woman tends to perform similarly online as in person.
We continued to discuss how men and women used the app in different ways. However, the end result was him saying that when people seek a certain quality of romantic partners, they’re happy to pay for the tech to accomplish this. “In the last couple of weeks we’ve had over six people write in that they are engaged to someone they met on The League.” This seemed exciting as VR has surely suffered from some monetization growing pains. Maybe the paid members of The League were the perfect target for a VR experience to enhance their dating lives.
Also my glass was empty — back to the bar.
I grabbed a margarita and sat down with the founder/CEO of the The League, Amanda Bradford to talk to her about the event, which billed itself as: “Love Without Limits” an “exploration into the future of dating.” “Basically, we’re monetizing impatience,” said Amanda, who created the app in order to find a higher quality of potential mates in her own romantic life.
The League has been very successful as a mobile-based app, but apart from Valentine’s Day, the reason for the party was to gauge interest in branching into VR, something that Amanda has been fascinated by as of late. She is dubbing this VR experience, which is already in development: “LeagueWorld.”
“VR can allow us to assess many of the subtle human qualities and mannerisms that are critical in determining whether there is ‘chemistry’ or ‘sparks’ between two people. Identifying this (or lack of it) early in the cycle makes dating much more efficient.”
She sees this as catering perfectly to her “time is money crowd”: “Only after you’ve ‘hit it off’ in Virtual Reality do singles meet in person – saving you hours of terrible and expensive first dates.”
Technology clearly informs and evolves our social behaviors, but what about those other variables of dating that can only be assessed in an in-person interaction? Smell, eye contact, in-person bodily mimicry, perceived approval by my mother, etc?
Amanda sees that as proof for why events are so important to her brand: “One of the reasons we do events is because of that X factor…the pheromones, flirting, in person chemistry, that’s really hard to build into algorithms…It’s a supplement to online dating, because if you’re a super busy person and you only have one night a week to go out, you want to meet as many potential people to date as you can.”
As I glanced around the room, I saw that a lot of people were coupling up. VR might be cool, but could it ever replace dating IRL? Given Amanda is an expert in such things, I had to ask: “How will virtual love be different than actual love?” “I’m not sure there will be a difference,” Amanda replied. “Love is a deep connection between two people that can cross time zones, continents, age differences – I can totally see it crossing digital chasms as well. The physical part of a relationship will need to be figured out, but barring that, I don’t see it being any different than long distance love.”
Despite the lessons learned, I had to admit that real parties were exhausting. Near the end of the night I collapsed into a white leather chair and began to scroll through my Instagram. Suddenly, a tall handsome man began to approach me. We locked eyes. He smiled and waived. “Hi!” he said “Hi! How are you?” I asked.
Maybe this night had been worth it. Maybe dating in reality was the better choice after all? Maybe I had found my valentine. “You’re sitting on my coat,” he responded. I apologized and handed him the garment.
Reality 1, Me 0.