February 17, 2008

So I Married an Avatar

Shava Nerad's wedding was a dream. The blue sky that kissed the dome of the ornate gazebo where she tied the knot on Feb. 9 was painted with an impressionist's brush. Her dress was speckled with rubies. Her self-composed vows were filled with passion. "In this life and the next I am yours," she wrote. "You are my second life."

The promise is especially fitting, given the setting of the ceremony. Nerad, a 48-year-old resident of Somerville, Mass., got married in Second Life, a virtual world where people interact with others online through computer-generated avatars (BusinessWeek, 5/1/06). Nerad chose Second Life for her wedding backdrop in part because she and her fiance, Matthew "Fish" Fishman, bonded over their shared love for the virtual world and used Second Life to stay in touch, despite travel and other commitments, during their 18-month courtship.

Virtual Courtship

Fishman, a 3D graphic and performance artist, also makes part of his living by building virtual events -- including weddings -- for brands and individuals in the game. "On a number of occasions when we were apart, we would use Second Life to feel close to each other because it is an immersive experience," says Fishman, who is performing a Second Life wedding Feb. 14. "You can hug each other."

This Valentine's Day, people are using the Web to connect and find love in ways that go far beyond matchmaking sites. Virtual worlds such as Second Life and Cyworld enable people to do everything from chat to get dinner and dance -- virtually. Meanwhile, the friendship circles that develop by way of sites such as Facebook and MySpace (NYSE:NWS - News) are redefining the notion of meeting a partner through a "friend." And online matchmaking services help users find a mate by matching by not only personality type but also the presumably correct DNA combination.

PersonalityZone, a free site that sorts users into one of four personality types, is seeing increased traffic this season thanks, in part, to people searching for the type that most meshes with their own. The "Love Zone" section of the months-old site is one of the most frequented among the 2,000 people who visit the site each day, says CEO Kip Parent. "There are a lot of pitfalls in pure opposites, and the complementary personality types work really well," Parent says.

Serious Chemistry

For people who want to ensure they and their mate have the right chemistry, there are several new services promising to match people with compatible chemical makeups. For slightly less than $1,000, ScientificMatch gives customers a lifelong membership to its DNA-based dating service. The company scans cells from the inside of members' mouths for immunity markers to help them find someone who passes the smell test -- literally. ScientificMatch founder and President Eric Holzle says pheromones are key to physical attraction. The chemicals are thought to advertise, among other things, a person's immunities. People are naturally, if subconsciously, attracted to other people whose immunities differ from their own, Holzle says. The idea is that the couple's offspring will be better protected against illness. "We are offering chemistry," he says.

Of course, smell isn't everything. That's why part of the service, and the price tag, includes personality and preference matching as well. "There are many factors involved in finding somebody who you will fall in love with," says Holzle. "We are at the very tip of the iceberg in our understanding of human attractions."

The Science of Love

Matchmaking services say they are getting better at figuring it out, however. As online dating becomes mainstream, sites such as eHarmony.com and Perfectmatch.com promise their algorithms can find the people best suited to each other based on answers to online questionnaires.

EHarmony boasts that 2% of marriages nationwide happen through its site, based on an online survey of nearly 3,000 adults conducted by Harris Interactive and eHarmony in January. The company, which requires members to answer a 258-question survey about themselves (BusinessWeek, 2/20/06), won't discuss details of how it matches couples. But Galen Buckwalter, eHarmony's vice-president for research and development, says a key is similarities. "Opposites attract, but then they attack," says Buckwalter, who says he's been "happily married for 12 years." Differences, particularly in values, turn into perennial conflicts in long-term relationships. "We are not trying to change the magic of love, but long-term relationships are very complex and not all aspects of them are completely unknown to science," he says.

Of course, you can only learn so much about a person from a digitized avatar, online personality test, or even DNA analysis. Fishman concedes he was first attracted to Nerad's physical appearance. He saw her across a crowded cafe and felt struck. "I am standing there eating cake, and there is this beautiful woman," he recalls.

Virtually Free

Shared interests and Second Life, however, have kept them together, says Fishman. Nerad proposed in the real world, but Fishman popped the question in the virtual world by having the words appear floating in the virtual sky. Fishman spent weeks preparing the graphics and art for the virtual wedding, which was attended by about 50 virtual friends. For all the planning and pomp that go into a virtual wedding, getting legally married still requires some real-world paperwork. The couple plan an official (read: real) ceremony later this year.

Nerad says the virtual event was no less special. For her dress, she spent 2,500 Lindens, the Second Life currency that's pegged to the dollar, or about $10. That same amount can also buy mansions in some parts of the game. "I am never going to have a dress like that in real life," Nerad says.

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