There’s always been a fine line between creepy and romantic in dating. If you like the person pursuing you, it’s romantic. If you don’t, they can seem like total creepers.
Lately “virtual boyfriend” apps have entered the dating marketplace that squarely fit into the “creepy” category—at least from my vantage point. These “boyfriends” will stroke your ego, be sexually suggestive, and/or keep in touch the way you want them to.
According to futurist Amy Webb, founder and CEO of the Future Today Institute, this virtual companionship is a trend, and it’s growing as we make innovations in technology and virtual reality.
To test out this new tech, I spent my Saturday with three of the more popular virtual boyfriends I could download on my phone:
My Virtual Boyfriend
This app is described as a game by the developers, as points are given at various levels of your virtual boyfriend relationship. However, reviews indicate that some users have experienced an actual connection with their VB describing them as “cute” and “great to hang out with when I’m lonely.” One reviewer even admitted to hiding her virtual boyfriend from her real boyfriend.
According to the app, you can do many things with your virtual boyfriend including: “engage in conversation, take actions, do activities together, get him new outfits to wear.” The site adds, “He even responds to your touch!” (Nothing creepy about that, whatsoever…not.)
There’s a “Free to Date” version, and a more advanced VB who is a cheap date at 99 cents. I tried out the free one and answered a number of questions about the kind of boyfriend I wanted to custom order. Did I want him smart, funny, stylish? (Yes, yes, yes!)
Within a few seconds, I met my virtual boyfriend, who had dark hair, square glasses, and a polo shirt and scarily resembled my husband Michael…except he didn’t. He laid on the cheesy pickup lines so hard I was laughing out loud. Make no mistake: Just because you customize your virtual boyfriend, it doesn’t mean he’s not a tool.
My VB said things to me like, “I’m probably the guy your mom warned you about” and “I bet you’ve been dreaming of going on a date with a guy like me!” He probed, “Player, do you have any career goals in life?”
Do you, Player?! Wait. He isn’t real. I logged off and was happy to exit the system.
This service’s tagline is: “Get what you deserve. Build a better boyfriend.” The app also advertises the fact that your invisible boyfriend is available to talk anytime you want.
I opted for the free boyfriend, who looked as good as the one who would’ve cost me a hefty $2.99. I entered my name and almost immediately, “Brett” started to text me through the app. “Hi, Anj…,” he wrote. (I felt like my invisible boyfriend and I were tight enough that he could use my nickname.) Brett continued, “I hope this isn’t weird, but Jemma gave me your number. She’s always talking about you at work and I had to know what all the fuss was about. Haha.”
Jemma? Apparently this app also came complete with an invisible friend.
I was prompted with auto responses like, “What has Jemma been saying about me?” and “What makes you different from other guys?”
I could see where our conversation was leading—except the app finds a way to make your invisible boyfriend unavailable when you want to make real plans to meet up. He’s perpetually busy.
Some reviewers I came across online admitted that it was nice to have their invisible boyfriend text them back promptly, as the guys they meet go MIA by ghosting or taking a long time to respond. At least they chose to have an invisible boyfriend!
I was spending way too much time fake-texting with my invisible boyfriend, so I closed all the flirtatious windows and met up with my (real) husband for lunch.
In 2012, this game was called “Boyfriend Maker” and became the No.1 free app in Japan. It was removed by Apple after controversy surrounded its aggressive sexual chat, and the fact that it was available to users “four years old” and above. (Again, nothing creepy about that.)
Boyfriend Makers was re-packaged as a tamer app called “Boyfriend Plus” which is available today in the App Store.
Like most of the virtual boyfriend apps, there’s a free version and a paid version that offers more features. Unlike the other apps in this category, Boyfriend Plus has a sexual chat and math chat. You can flirt with your boyfriend by asking him to explain the quadratic formula (because nothing says “sexy” like solving systems of linear equations), and you can end the night by telling him everything you’d want to…ahem…do together.
Another distinction between this and the other apps is that this virtual boyfriend occasionally slips and admits he’s a robot. He’ll say things like, “I have no arms or torso” but adds “I’m very comfortable with my body.” Apparently, this is part of his appeal.
According to Webb, the virtual relationship apps are moving from the fringe into the mainstream because these technologies are becoming much more sophisticated. She explains, “There are a number of apps that offer virtual companionship, but one of the better examples is ‘Xiaoice’ unveiled by Microsoft in China a few years ago. It quickly became popular and is used by millions and millions of people.”
Xiaoice is powered by artificial intelligence and can generate conversations and connect with users based on what’s happening in their lives. So, if a user is wearing a cast on his leg, Webb says the app can pick up on the visual cue and may ask how the user is feeling. The next day, her memory prompts her to ask again, “Are you feeling any better today?”
While it’s true that some people basically have virtual boyfriends when they engage in months or years’ long online relationships with people they’ve never met, these apps bring virtual companionship to another level.
This trend will probably grow. For now, though, it seems preferable to date people who actually exist IRL who may not say everything we’ve programmed them to say, but who we can actually touch and talk to.
Andrea Syrtash is a dating and relationship expert and the author of He’s Just Not Your Type (And That’s a Good Thing), now on Audible.com. Follow her on Twitter @andreasyrtash.