Before I was creating avatar real world representations, I was a key innovator for the very early internet in the 90s. Around that time, as a hobby I picked up one of the first three massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, Asheron’s Call—it was a hugely entertaining Dungeons and Dragons type game. I would usually adventure solo, but every now and again I would get into a group and we would go on some kind of quest.
What floored me was that the quest would be going along just fine with five or six guys and then a woman would want to join our quest, and everything would stop—people would start talking and flirting. I realized this game was great for going out to adventure but it was even better for just going to be social. That was sort of the genesis for the idea of creating my own virtual reality world.
I started working on Utherverse, a 3D virtual reality social network, around 2003, but it launched in 2005. I felt that the way most social media platforms were shaping up were giving a distorted view of people’s lives. It seemed to me that they were designed so that everybody would become jealous. You may have hundreds or thousands of friends on Facebook, but somebody always seems to be doing better than you are. You’re always hearing about other people getting a promotion or going on vacation.
What I wanted to do was create a platform that was analogous to what humans are like originally. Allowing people to form real social circles and bonds with people they interact with, all around the world.
But we saw people creating romantic connections from the day we opened the (digital) doors of the platform. We did spend time making the space conducive to that, including creating a social profile for people to share information about, and images of, their “real” selves. But I was surprised how firmly and quickly the community created its own culture.
I don’t recall the exact timing that we became aware that we had created a dating network. But very early on the community started to develop a wedding industry within the platform because the romantic encounters had become so prevalent. Eventually we established something kind of official, where you can get a marriage license and an “official” Justice of the Peace (JOP) within the platform. Obviously you don’t have to do that, you can get married in whatever way you like in our virtual universe. There’s a whole industry on the platform around weddings and relationships; you can have someone design your gown for a gala or date, or you can hire DJs and rent out banquet halls. It’s all user driven, although we do have our own “official” JOP.
Obviously there is no legal force in effect from the marriages other than on our platform, but many people have taken it to the next step and do get married in the real world. It was also exciting in the early days, because people were able to have a same-sex marriage within our virtual world before it was legal in the U.S. and in many other places—we weren’t discriminatory.
I didn’t anticipate that marriage and romance would be quite such a powerful component; we have people who own clubs or offer matchmaking services, the whole gamut. In general, we try to facilitate a warm, inviting and non-threatening community, so we host events and have volunteer guides who introduce avatars to one another.
It’s not a dating service in the same sense as something like OKCupid or Tinder. If you’re searching for a partner you can search profiles like on those apps, but here you generally find someone naturally in an event and you might see them in a general chat. When people have avatars there’s less fear about any perceived physical imperfections and there’s less pressure because it’s not a private conversation—you’re talking to the room.
You can also see how each person interacts with other people, or their friends on the platform. If you have a date, you could go to a concert or a nightclub on the platform where you’re with a group with both of your friends and it makes it more natural and less pressured. It’s a different way of operating a dating service, and I believe it’s the future of dating.
Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages. You may find that you’re more compatible with someone on the platform who is halfway around the world. We have around 12million registered users, and I have so many anecdotes of people who have got together through the platform.
People often write to me and tell me that they have gotten married and thought I should know. There are maybe five marriages or so a year I personally hear about that are a result from people meeting through our platform.
We had a woman and a man who ended up being volunteers within the platform. He was in the U.K. and she was in the U.S. They got married virtually and were together for eight months or so, then he finally flew across the pond and they immediately hit it off in real life. I think they were stressing about whether there would be chemistry in person, but there was and they got married in real life. That type of story is always very heartwarming. Every time that happens I feel great. I’ll sometimes then see them post pictures of their kids on Facebook.
I’m a little less certain about the number of real life relationships, but I would estimate hundreds a year between people who are local and get together physically. And there are likely thousands of relationships where people are together but separated geographically. It’s a wonderful way to meet people, though you do have the problem of how many people are using this virtual universe in your local area.
It’s interesting to relate to people on all kinds of levels but I personally feel it’s a handicap if the platform you’re using is prohibiting sexual activity. I feel like sex is a huge part of being human.
So, we have the Red Light Center within our virtual universe. It was introduced in 2006 and includes the whole gamut of adult activity. We have not shied away from making it clear that this a big part of our virtual reality universe. People might get married on the platform and then want to rent a fancy room in a hotel. We also have gentleman’s clubs and strip clubs for all orientations. We have a replica of Amsterdam’s red-light district with sex workers and there are many options for different sexual experiences. I consider the center to be an alternative method for people to be able to safely engage in sexual behaviour. You can act out fantasies without being in danger of getting physically hurt. We try to take things to the natural conclusion in the same way that a real life encounter or relationship would happen. But it’s safe and low risk.
I don’t think I would be able to work on Utherverse if I hadn’t been involved in exploring all the different avenues available on the platform. I’ve met some spectacular people and had wonderful encounters with people that have become sexual. But there are so many different levels to romance on the platform; you can send a private note or arrange a date. It’s exciting, even though you know it’s on a computer. Obviously it’s not real but the mind is very powerful.
I remember back in 2006, I was involved with a woman and as she turned to walk away, I found myself checking her out. It was like this light went off—I didn’t feel at that moment like this was a computer simulation, instead, I was reacting like this was real life!
However I haven’t taken any virtual relationships into real life because the issue for me is that as the CEO I am in a position of power. I have had to make it clear to anyone I have been involved with on the platform that it isn’t a normal peer-to-peer relationship.
Courtesy of Brian Shuster
I do recall being very concerned about catfishing at the outset. Our policy is that you can represent yourself as you like as long as you are of legal age of majority. If you’re transgender and you want to go in as the gender you identify with, that’s fine. We wanted to leave that to the individual.
It is possible to engage the software as a basic member and be identified as such, but you don’t get certain permissions without verifying yourself. Once you upgrade you’ve gone through a process to verify you’re the age of majority and we verify you are a real person to the extent we are able. Obviously on the internet nothing is 100 percent perfect.
We have had reports from members of the community that people are suspect or not believed to be an adult. If the community feels someone is behaving in a way that doesn’t cut it, they do report it to us.
There have been incidents, such as I received an appeal from someone who had been outed as male when they were presenting as female. I had to explain to that person that it wasn’t that they were identifying as a different sex, but that they were doing so for nefarious reasons and this came out because people had become suspicious of their predatory behaviour. Of course that can happen, but people in the community are generally good about discovering and reporting that kind of behaviour. And we have had issues with phishing and scams but we’ll send messages to the community when it happens.
What I hope for the platform in the future is that we can re-order the way that people interact with other people online. If you understand somebody they generally stop being a stereotype and it’s harder to hate them.
I have always hoped that Utherverse could blossom into a global phenomenon where it’s not just dating, or sex, or attending a concert or class, but really forming social groups that can be human with one another in an elevated way, including the whole spectrum of humanity.
That’s still my dream.
Brian Shuster is the CEO of Ideaflood, Inc., an intellectual property development and holding company, and Utherverse Digital, Inc. Utherverse has more than 12 million registered users and worldwide franchise operations. You can follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Shuster
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
As told to Jenny Haward.