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Digital Love

OnLove - Digital Love: Looking for love on virtual-reality Web sites

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By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 1, 2009

A recent study by four academics, including professors from Harvard Business School and Duke University, suggests that online dating sites regularly leave users disappointed because they present potential matches as a rundown of characteristics -- age, race, religion, income -- that in no way embody the full measure of a person.

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Vitamins and laundry detergent, they assert, are quantifiable things that can be purchased with reliable satisfaction through the Internet. Romantic partners, however, must be experienced to be properly evaluated, like a restaurant or a perfume.

But the authors don't predict the demise of online dating. They just think singles might be better served looking for love with a little help from their avatars.

That would put Jill Stewman and Algie Bhoomz ahead of the curve.

Stewman and Bhoomz first "met" late last fall on RedLightCenter.com, a virtual-reality site designed to mimic Amsterdam's freewheeling red-light district.

Stewman, 36, was living in Portland, Ore., and, after hearing about the site from friends, logged on to just see what it was. Hours later, she'd built an avatar and begun to explore, nearly missing a flight to Baltimore.

"To me it was really amazing," recalls the marketing professional. "Just being able to walk around -- you're this little person and everyone's talking. Being able to walk into these rooms and clubs with music and people dancing."

Soon she was visiting the site every day. So was Bhoomz, a 36-year-old customer service representative from Montclair, N.J. Both had virtual flings and flirtations with other avatars before beginning an online courtship of their own in January.

"We started talking and realized we had a lot in common," Stewman says. They would meet in the online world every night to send their avatars out dancing, chatting, playing games and engaging in virtual intimacies.

The two also began talking on the phone and via webcam for long hours. Because profiles of the people behind the avatars exist on the site, they had seen photos of each other and knew the basics regarding age, occupation and location.

On March 16 their avatars were married in an online ceremony witnessed by 60 RedLightCenter.com friends. An additional 20 came to the reception, on a virtual yacht.

"We had the whole place sobbing," Bhoomz says.


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