Online dating: Avatars tackle the first date for you

First-date jitters got you down? Use OmniDate to build an online dating avatar that will stand in your stead.

Online dating can be fraught with "firsts," including the first time you meet a person face-to-face. If you're not sure you're ready for that step, would you consider a date in a 3-D virtual world that's reminiscent of Second Life?

OmniDate is hoping the idea will catch on in a big way. The firm is working on a new service, to be ready in the next few months, that features photo-realistic avatars -- that is, online characters that look like you, or at least like your best photo.

Users submit a photo, which the service renders as an animated online character. "You create an avatar that looks like you and dress it the way you would like to be dressed," explains Ravit Ableman, co-founder and vice president. (See the bottom of this page for an animation showing how OmniDate turned a photo of me into an avatar. We even added a mullet for good measure.)

Your avatar can then go on a virtual date in a variety of settings, such as a restaurant or a bar. "How do you go from reading a profile to interacting with a person online and eventually in person?" asks CEO Igo Kotlyar. "Our goal is to bridge that gap."

Interactions between avatars are deliberately limited. Participants use emoticons to trigger avatar responses -- for example, you can have your avatar yawn if your date is being a bore. Avatars can play games, touch hands and even blow a kiss -- if the other person gives permission. But that's as racy as it gets, Ableman says.

She maintains the technology is "extremely woman-friendly," especially when compared with webcams and other technologies that may pose a danger. "Women have a hard time getting to know a guy. And for women, there are issues that come into play like safety and security," she says.

Avatar love?

If avatars are built into online dating sites, will users come? "I probably wouldn't do that," says "Michelle," a 45-year-old scientist who's used online dating sites, adding that she's not that computer-savvy.

But Mary, a 45-year-old executive for a large IT consultancy, is more open to the idea. "That sounds cool. I like the idea," she says, adding that being able to play a game on a virtual date as a way to get to know someone is "not a bad thing."

Jake, a 56-year-old writer and editor who has used many of the free services online, is less impressed. "I'd probably try to ignore the distraction of the avatar and just focus on the conversation -- in which case, we might as well be instant messaging or e-mailing."

But, he adds, "I like the idea of games."

OmniDate transforms Rob Mitchell's uploaded photo into an animated avatar.

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