I'm sitting on a satellite in space. Earth is to my left, just out of my grasp. In front of me, a brilliant shooting star soars across the galaxy.
There's also a man, floating there with me, dressed casually in a T-shirt and pants. He's smiling and pointing to a space shuttle docking next to us, his eyes wide with excitement. We chat while taking in the the endless expanse of stars surrounding us.
After about half an hour, we say our goodbyes, and I reach up and remove my headpiece. I'm back in CNET's office, alone, with a pair of virtual reality goggles in my hands.
I just went on a date in space.
This is the promise of VR, a decades-old technology that's been hitting store shelves in new incarnations in the past year. By strapping on a screen close enough to your eyes, your mind can be tricked into thinking you're in a computer-generated world that feels pretty real. It's an idea called "presence."
Five years ago, that experience seemed like a pipe dream, the stuff of sci-fi movies and tech nerds. Then, in 2012, a company called Oculus took the industry by storm and two year later Facebook snatched it up for $3 billion. Since then, companies from Google to Sony to Microsoft and Apple have gotten involved in VR tech in some way. It's becoming real, and fast.
People are already using the tech for education, architecture, communication, history, entertainment and even a novel form of exposure therapy (imagine putting an arachnophobe "in" a room with spiders). Now, some developers are imagining how it can be used to go on dates.
"You create a whole different level of immersion and presence in the virtual world and that can make you genuinely feel that you are somewhere else and you are with another person," said Clemens Wangerin, managing director of vTime, which made the dating app that sent me to space.
Was my VR date a window into the future? Dating site eHarmony predicts we'll regularly go on full-sensory (including smelling your partner's perfume) VR dates by 2040.
And it might happen with apps like vTime, which works on devices ranging from the $599 Oculus Rift to the often-free Google Cardboard, which is powered by your smartphone. My experience was powered by an Oculus headset in our office.
The service from vTime is free and I didn't see any ads while using it. The company wouldn't say how it ultimately plans to make money. Its competitors are also free, like AltspaceVR, whose eponymous service promises experiences like virtual comedy clubs, games with other users, mazes and art galleries. Oh, and another thing from the real world being recreated in the virtual one: texting.
Real world, virtual love life
A few generations ago, couples met through family friends at their church or synagogue or by the water cooler at work. Then came the internet. Today, more than 90 percent of America's 54.3 million singles have tried online dating, according to Statistic Brain Research Institute.
From eHarmony to JDate to Tinder to Grindr, the tech industry has found ever more interesting and unusual ways to use apps to pair us up. Now computers are capable enough and tech is cheap enough that VR could actually become mainstream.
That's what led me to vTime, a VR company focused on social interaction. Founded in 2013, it started off with a VR cooking simulator called CyberCook. Now it's looking into dating.
Sure, my parents would probably look at me funny if I said I met my next beau in VR. But that's the stigma dating apps used to face, too.
VR does raise some concerns among experts, though. It might lead to bad behavior. For example, people might use VR dating to seek out what they think is the perfect partner, and be unwilling to push through to the end of a date with someone who isn't, said Dr. Benjamin Karney, a professor of social psychology at UCLA, says.
In virtual reality, he said, "I can just say forget it and pick someone new."
Still, I can't shake the feeling that VR dating is a step too far. After my experience, I felt kinda weird about it. If this really is the future, I may have a hard time dating in it.
Of course, VR dating doesn't just have to be about finding someone new. For Jason MacNaughton, a 35-year-old VR developer and former telecommunications engineer, it's a place to catch up with his long-distance girlfriend of five years, who goes by T.L. He would travel to places like Saskatoon, in Canada's great plains, leaving behind T.L. over 1,000 miles away in Victoria.
Like other couples, the two send text messages and catch up on video chat. But when they put on their VR headsets, the miles of distance melt away.
"I first heard about vTime during Christmas of last year and found it was a really great way to interact with my girlfriend rather than using FaceTime," MacNaughton said, referring to the video chat feature on Apple's iPhones. "With 360 video and audio you can immerse your entire environment."
In one exchange, MacNaughton put on his headset while traveling, and suddenly, he was sitting next to T.L. on a blanket by the ocean, talking about their day. At one point, an orca and two narwhals surfaced from the water in front of them.
MacNaughton also uses a feature of vTime to "share" 360-degree photos of his travels. He can capture an image of his hotel room, then jump into the app and so he and T.L. can "sit" inside the photograph together.
In my space-date, I met Paul Hollywood, the product director at vTime. We discussed the detail his team puts into the experience, such as how the Earth to our left subtly turned and completed a full rotation if we sat there for 90 minutes. We chatted about his background in video game design and mine in journalism. After a while, I forgot we were even in VR.
A few months later, though, I haven't gone on any other vTime dates. Good old-fashion FaceTime works well enough for me. For now.
Correction, Feb. 15 at 11:16 a.m PT: This story originally misstated the name for vTime's cooking simulator. The correct name is CyberCook.
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